NEWS AND ANALYSIS - COUNTDOWN TO INDEPENDENCE
MARKO DJURICA/REUTERSON THE MARCH: Kosovar Serbs wave a faked picture of President Tadic wearing Albanian headgearSunday, Oct. 17, 2004Ilija and Blaguna Trajkovic don't think much of democracy. Forced by an ethnic Albanian mob to leave their home in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, last March, and then obliged to stand by as the 19th century Serbian Orthodox church they had taken care of was torched, the Serb couple now live in a shipping container in the enclave of Gracanica, south of Pristina. In the past month, successive international delegations have urged the Trajkovics and 130,000 other members of the Serb minority living in Kosovo to participate in this week's elections for the Kosovo Assembly, the provisional local government. But the Trajkovics, like most other Serbs, want no part of it. "Who are we to vote for?" asks Ilija, 53, huddled over a space heater as rain pounds the steel roof overhead. "We trusted the U.N. before and look what it got us. My family has lived in Kosovo for 500 years. But there is no future here." For Kosovo's Serbs and Albanians alike, this week's vote is about more than just who will fix potholed roads. It could be the first step on the road to independence from Serbia, completing the break that began when NATO bombers drove Slobodan Milosevic's troops out of the province in 1999. For the past five years Kosovo, which is still legally part of Serbia, has been ruled by a United Nations administration backed by an 18,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force, with assistance from an the Kosovo Assembly. But with conflicts brewing around the world, the U.N. and NATO are now looking to get out, and fast. In a recent U.N. report, Kai Eide, a veteran Norwegian diplomat, said the U.N. needed urgently to refocus its efforts on transferring authority to local leaders and ending its present mission: "We can no longer defer the most difficult issues to an indefinite future." There is no more difficult issue than Kosovo's independence — and no middle ground between the two communities' views. Kosovar Albanian leaders want results now. "Independence," the Kosovar Albanian Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi told Time, "is necessary for our development. Any [further] delay will bring more trouble." Kosovar Serbs say they don't trust Albanian leaders to protect their rights. "We have heard all the promises before," says Ilija Trajkovic. "They are old lies." U.N. officials insist that the best way Serbs can be heard is by electing their leaders to the new Assembly. Refusing to vote, says a diplomat, "will only hurt their cause." It also raises the chance of violence. An extra 2,000 troops have been deployed to prevent trouble at the polls. Not long ago, the U.N. could not even talk about Kosovo's "final status" for fear of inflaming the Serb community. That changed, ironically, with the clashes that made the Trajkovics flee. Those riots, which left 19 dead and displaced 4,000, underscored how a peaceful, multiethnic Kosovo was still a fiction. Since then, Kosovar Serb representatives have withdrawn from local U.N.-sponsored institutions. Though the new Serbian President Boris Tadic has called on Kosovar Serbs to vote, he is virtually alone in doing so. Bishop Artemije, a Serbian Orthodox prelate, even compared voting to "national suicide." Under a new plan, the elected Assembly will be assessed in a series of reviews on its adherence to democratic practice and respect for minority rights. A positive result will lead to "final status" talks in mid-2005, the U.N. says. Those talks will include the government in Belgrade, where leaders there are notably unenthusiastic. Hard-line politicians are strengthening "parallel institutions" such as schools and hospitals in majority Serb areas to undermine Pristina's authority. Once talks begin, many Albanians expect Belgrade to push for partition of the province, leaving the majority Serb areas in the north under its control. But Albanians reject the idea. Western diplomats are also reluctant to redraw borders. They hope to meet Serb security concerns by granting them more local control over institutions like schools and the police. Mindful of his new responsibilities, Rexhepi agrees: "My message to Kosovar Serbs is, Kosovo is your land. But you have to have the courage to say we want to be citizens of Kosovo." After the violence in March, it's easy to see why the Trajkovics and others are not feeling brave. But whatever they choose to do in this week's vote, the U.N.'s and NATO's patience is running out.
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