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Parliament at Stake in Kosovo Vote

Yugoslavia: Ethnic Albanians hope to lay a foundation for independence. Serbs, in the minority, fear victory by former guerrillas.


KLINA, Yugoslavia — Valbona Halili, an ethnic Albanian from this rural town in western Kosovo, hid from Yugoslav forces in the nearby mountains for three months during fighting in 1999.

Now, with the first free and democratic Kosovo-wide elections scheduled today, the young woman says she will vote for the former guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army. "They are the only ones who deserve to represent me," she said, "because they were the only ones who fought for the freedom we're living in today."

Halili dreams that the Democratic Party of Kosovo, headed by former KLA political leader Hashim Thaci, will not only win the elections but also eventually achieve independence for the U.N.-administered province, which formally remains a part of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.

Halili's dream is Bozidar Vukomanovic's nightmare. The 31-year-old unemployed ethnic Serb in the ethnically divided northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica fears a victory by the former guerrillas. "What if a terrorist becomes president of Kosovo after the election? This would mean the KLA, who are terrorists in our opinion, would actually seize power."

Officially, what is at stake in today's balloting is control of a provincial parliament, which will select a president. Both will operate only within strict limits imposed by the United Nations administration here, which is backed up by a 38,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force.

But for ethnic Albanians, who are virtually unanimous in favoring independence and who make up the great majority of Kosovo's population, the election is a referendum on who has earned the right to lead them and who will do the best job of achieving independence.

The main competition is between longtime moderate ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who has led a nonviolent struggle for independence for more than a decade, and former KLA leader Thaci, who heads the largest party created by the former guerrillas. Thaci supporters tend to believe it was the 1997-99 guerrilla struggle that won the province freedom from Serbian control, while Rugova supporters credit the passive resistance campaign he led against rule from Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital.

A former KLA commander, Ramush Haradinaj, heads a potentially important smaller party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo. It has pledged to help lead a competent, broad-based government that through success in governing could advance the cause of independence.

If neither Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo nor Thaci's party wins a majority in parliament--the result most observers expect--then Haradinaj's alliance could play a key role in coalition-building.

The president selected by the new Kosovo Assembly will in turn nominate a prime minister to head a government. Rugova is seeking the presidency, while Thaci's party has put forward humanitarian activist and former political prisoner Flora Brovina as its candidate for that post.

For ethnic Serbs, the question is whether their fight to remain part of Yugoslavia is better served by voting, and thereby winning a relatively stronger position in the new parliament, or by boycotting the ballot for fear it will legitimize institutions that may ease the creation of an independent country. Serbian leaders in Kosovo are split on this issue.

Election rules guarantee Serbs at least 10 seats in the 120-member Kosovo Assembly, with the possibility that they could take more seats if their participation in the vote is high enough. Serbs also are guaranteed at least one ministerial position in the new government. Other ethnic minorities, including Roma, or Gypsies, and Bosniaks, who are Muslim Slavs, are also guaranteed a total of 10 seats and one ministerial post.

International control of Kosovo followed 78 days of bombing in 1999 by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a campaign designed to force former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his crackdown on the province's ethnic Albanians.

After international forces entered Kosovo in June 1999, nearly 200,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians fled in fear of reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians. About 80,000 to 100,000 Serbs remain in a total population estimated at more than 2 million. Nearly all the Serbs live in enclaves guarded by international peacekeepers of the Kosovo Force, or KFOR.

As provided by a 1999 U.N. Security Council resolution, ultimate power will remain in the hands of chief U.N. administrator Hans Haekkerup until the international community decides the time is ripe to reach a permanent settlement of Kosovo's status.

Nothing in this election prejudges what that final settlement will be, Haekkerup said in an interview, adding that the new institutions' greatest significance lies in their potential to change the psychology of interethnic relations.

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