Elections in Kosovo promise return of self-rule

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The Independent Online

The people of Kosovo go to the polls today to elect the first national assembly since Serb forces were driven from the province in 1999.

The election will return Kosovo to the self-rule it had within the former Yugoslavia. Since 1999, the province has been governed by the UN.

Amid fears of a boycott by the minority Serb population, the President of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica, launched a last-minute appeal to Kosovo Serbs to cast their votes.

Under a system of "positive discrimination", 10 seats in the 120-seat assembly are reserved for Serbs and another 10 for the other ethnic minorities, mostly Roma, Turks and Bosnians.

Thousands of Serbs fled Kosovo in June 1999, after 11 weeks of Nato air strikes. They feared the vengeance of almost one million ethnic Albanians, previously expelled from the province by Slobodan Milosevic's security forces.

The fall of Milosevic, however, has brought a significant change in Belgrade's politics, including co-operation with the UN-led Kosovo administration.

The UN will remain in the province but it will be up to the Kosovars to decide on their own budget, health, social welfare and education affairs. Judicial affairs, law enforcement and foreign affairs will remain the responsibility of the international community.

The leader of the UN Mission in Kosovo (Unmik), Hans Haekkerup, said: "Unmik will still be here and will still have a role, but we will take a step back." He described the participation of Serbs in the elections as "very important".

Under an agreement that Mr Haekkerup signed with Belgrade earlier this month, the parliament will not be allowed to proclaim Kosovo's full independence.