West faces dilemma over poll

PRISTINA, Sep 1, 2000 -- (Reuters) Western powers and the United Nations were grappling with a major dilemma in Kosovo on Thursday after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's party said federal elections would take place in the province.

The move by Milosevic leaves the West with a choice of trying to ban elections in a territory where it fought to establish democracy or sanction a poll which could be flawed, spark violence and keep an indicted war criminal in power.

A senior Yugoslav official raised the stakes further when he said Milosevic himself would visit Kosovo, although he would not say if this would happen during the campaign for the September 24 presidential, federal and Serbian municipal elections.

Although Kosovo has been ruled as a de facto international protectorate since June last year, the UN Security Council resolution which ended NATO's bombing campaign states that the province officially remains part of Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia.

The territory's U.N.-led administration, headed by former French cabinet minister Bernard Kouchner, said it had not yet reached a decision on the Yugoslav elections and would consult with major capitals and local politicians first.

The announcement by Milosevic's ruling Socialists, reported by Belgrade media on Thursday, prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity in the Kosovo capital Pristina as Kouchner met with envoys from the big five Western powers.


Although the possibility that Yugoslav authorities would try to hold elections in a territory they still consider their own had always existed, the move seemed to wrong-foot international officials, who could give no firm position on the issue.

"I have been very careful not to give the last word of the European Union," stressed Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, on a visit to Pristina. He said the final decision would be for Kouchner and his staff.

"In principle, everybody has a right to vote," Solana said. "But there's practical reasons why the security may not be guaranteed, the time may be too short, et cetera."

Solana said the Security Council resolution made clear the UN Mission in Kosovo was the only body which could organize elections. But a Yugoslav official said the only role of UNMIK and the NATO-led KFOR peace force would be to provide security.

"UNMIK and KFOR have the sole duty to provide a safe life for Kosovo citizens," said Nikola Sainovic, Yugoslav deputy prime minister and senior Socialist, told reporters in Belgrade. He also announced the president's planned visit to Kosovo.

A trip to Kosovo by Milosevic would be like waving a red rag to a bull for the province's ethnic Albanian majority, who suffered years of repression at the hands of his forces.

UNMIK has also made clear Milosevic, indicted by a UN war crimes tribunal for the actions of his forces in Kosovo, would be apprehended if he set foot in the province. "He can come and he'll be arrested," UNMIK spokeswoman Susan Manuel said.


But any form of campaigning by Serb politicians is likely to enrage Albanians and prompt more of the sort of violence meted out to minority Serbs by Albanians in the 14 months since NATO and the UN took over responsibility for Kosovo.

Even the idea of a Yugoslav election on Kosovo soil could anger many Albanians, who want complete independence for the territory and resent any association with Belgrade.

International officials also worry votes from Kosovo could be rigged by Milosevic, whose opponents have accused him of manipulating the Kosovo vote in his favor in previous polls.

"Every single vote he can claim from Kosovo, he will - whether he really got it or not," one Western diplomat remarked.

But diplomats are also wary of playing into Milosevic's hands. Some believe a refusal by UNMIK to let the election take place in Kosovo runs the risk of bolstering his anti-Western stance among voters in Serbia proper.

Some officials also question how the UN could physically stop the elections if people in Kosovo's Serb enclaves decide to organize them, unless the West is ready to sanction major force - which could also give Milosevic a propaganda boost.

Original article