PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Ethnic Albanians here in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo will hold underground elections today amid calls for a boycott, the threat of violence and a deepening debate over whether independence for the region can be achieved peacefully.
The vote is for president and parliament of the self-styled "Republic of Kosovo." There is only one candidate for president--the leader of the Kosovo Albanians, Ibrahim Rugova, whose policy of passive resistance to Serbian rule is under attack for failing to achieve the freedom his people seek.
On Saturday evening, for the third consecutive night, young Serbian men cruised the dark streets of this provincial capital in cars, waving nationalistic flags and honking their horns. Albanians said the activity was meant to intimidate them, and most citizens did seem to be staying indoors. Some of the Serbian men in the streets appeared to be from the political party led by a notorious former paramilitary commander known as Arkan.
Also Saturday, Serbian newspapers reported that Serbian authorities, who consider the Albanian elections illegal, had confiscated ballots and other electoral material from five Kosovo municipalities. But Albanian election personnel said they had plenty of extra ballots to make up for those lost.
For ethnic Albanian opposition politicians, student leaders and an armed guerrilla movement, however, the elections are ill-timed. These groups have demanded that the voting be called off because of a Serbian police siege that in the last three weeks has killed scores of ethnic Albanians and that continues to inflame tensions in the province.
Fliers that appeared mysteriously on Albanian doorsteps Saturday made the point:
"Down with elections that deceive the people! Down with pacifism! For eight years the pacifists have been trying to convince you that Albanians will have a state. Where is your state? Where is your government? Where is your freedom? . . . They hold elections to lull the nation to sleep. Long live the fight for a free Albanian state!"
The fliers, signed by a group calling itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Kosovo, urged Albanians to stay away from the polls.
But Rugova, needing a boost to his own political legitimacy, insisted that the vote go ahead. Neither Yugoslavia--which now consists only of Serbia and the much smaller Montenegro--nor much of the world will recognize the Kosovo elections or their results. Even quite a few Albanians see the exercise as a farce.
"We can call these the private elections of Mr. Ibrahim Rugova," said Adem Demaqi, Rugova's main rival and a veteran politician who spent 28 years in Serbian prisons for his pro-independence activities. "Holding elections now attempts to show everything is normal when nothing is normal. It is a disrespect for the blood shed in Drenica."
Drenica is the rebellious triangle of territory in Kosovo where the Serbian government launched its assault on armed separatists after a series of ambushes in recent months killed Serbian police officers and Albanian collaborators. Women, children and old people were among the ethnic Albanians killed in the crackdown, which brought international condemnation and scorn on the government in Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia.
No attempt will be made to hold the elections in Drenica, which will disenfranchise as many as 150,000 people and increased calls for postponing the voting altogether.
"How can you have an election in fear?" asked Habib Sylejmani, the head of a small party in Mitrovice, a town on the edge of the Drenica area that has received thousands of refugees since the police operation began.
Rugova dismissed the boycott calls as a sign of healthy democratic debate and said the elections will "further strengthen the legitimacy of Kosovo and its commitment to freedom and democracy."
In a similar pseudo-election in 1992, the Kosovo Albanians named Rugova as their "president" and chose deputies to a 113-member shadow parliament, most of whom are members of Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo.
But the parliament never sat, and Rugova's "term" ended two years ago.
The system overseen by Rugova illustrates the parallel nature of the ethnic Albanian life in Kosovo that has evolved since Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, now president of Yugoslavia, revoked Kosovo's autonomous status in 1989.
Under Rugova's leadership, the Albanians have set up their own medical and educational systems. Making up 90% of Kosovo's estimated population of 2.1-million, the ethnic Albanians patronize their own stores and cafes and view the Serbian police as an occupation force. Their "government" has no authority, yet they do not recognize Serbian state institutions.
Once an unassailable leader in what is essentially a one-party para-state, Rugova faces growing criticism for allowing Kosovo to languish in limbo.