Independence beckons in Kosovo poll

Kosovo goes to the polls today in what is regarded as the most important election for the province since it broke away from Serbia in 1999 following Nato military intervention.

The voting takes place as the crucial final status talks on the future of the province seemingly head for a deadlock with Serbia refusing to accede to Kosovar demand for full independence.

Hashim Thaci, the former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the front-runner in opinion polls, has pledged to bring the independence process forward with a possible unilateral declaration of independence. He has declared: "Immediately after 10 December we will take decisions to make Kosovo an independent and sovereign country."

Serbia has warned that a unilateral move would destabilise the region and is seeking backing from Russia, which under Vladimir Putin, has begun to express strong interest in the Balkans. In July, Moscow blocked a proposal in the United Nations, backed by the US and a number of European countries, for Kosovo to be declared independent.

Serbia is due to hold its own elections in January and there have been claims in Belgrade that a move by the Kosovars to break away would undermine the pro-Western president, Boris Tadic, and swing power towards hard-line Milosevic-era nationalists.

There is already growing disenchantment in Serbia towards the West amid warnings that European Union membership would only follow the handing over of war crimes suspects to the international court in the Hague. Nationalist groups say that the West is now trying to coerce Serbia into accepting the secession of Kosovo as yet another pre-condition to joining.

It may, however, simply be a matter of electoral arithmetic which prevents an immediate confrontation over the independence issue. Despite having the strongest showing at the polls, Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK) is unlikely to get more than 32 per cent of the votes, not providing enough seats for him to form a government of his own.

Seeking partners for a coalition, say analysts, is also likely to mean that he will have to moderate his stance.

The DPK's biggest rival, the Democratic League of Kosovo (DLK), which was headed by the late president Ibrahim Rugova, a widely respected moderate figure known as the "Gandhi of Kosovo", is expected to obtain 29 per cent of the votes. It has not ruled out forming a government with Mr Thaci but there are major policy differences between the two sides.

A third large party, Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, is led by Ramush Haradinaj, a former KLA commander who stepped down as prime minister last year and is currently in the Hague, facing war crimes charges.

The Kosovo parliament has 120 seats, 100 for the largest ethnic Albanian community and 10 each for Kosovo Serbs and other non-Albanian and non-Serb ethnic groups, such as Roma or Bosniaks. The 120,000 Kosovo Serbs will boycott the elections, after Belgrade and the influential Serbian Orthodox Church called for them to do so, warning that involvement would give legitimacy to a parliament that threatens to declare independence of Kosovo from Serbia.