Kosovo elections give Albanians a taste of freedom

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The Independent Online

Emir Shala will be wearing a red shirt and black trousers when he votes today. The dress code is not a statement of extrovert taste but a way of defying the United Nations ban on the wearing of Albanian colours in polling booths.

Emir Shala will be wearing a red shirt and black trousers when he votes today. The dress code is not a statement of extrovert taste but a way of defying the United Nations ban on the wearing of Albanian colours in polling booths.

Colours and flags have become emotive symbols of the most important election in the Kosovo's history. For the UN and Nato it is a purely municipal poll, and the black eagle on the red flag of Albania is an unwelcome sign of nationalism. But for the Kosovar Albanians, this exercise in democracy is the first step towards independence from Serbia.

Only a fraction of the 80,000 Serbs remaining in Kosovo are taking part in the poll, but Serbs will be appointed to municipal councils by Bernard Kouchner, the head of the UN mission.

With the election of Vojislav Kostunica as Yugoslav President there is widespread fear among Albanians that the West will be free to make a deal with Belgrade. UN and Nato officials have suddenly become very keen to point out that UN Resolution 1244, which set up the UN administration for Kosovo, implicitly recognises the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. These reverberations, and the prospect of Serbia receiving billions of pounds in aid, have led to increased resentment.

Election commercials show images of Serbian atrocities, Serbian police storming villages and refugees fleeing through forests. All three main parties contesting the election say they want to break free of Yugoslavia.

Ibrahim Rugova, of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), is adamant: "These municipal elections must be followed by national ones and the West should declare that they recognise Kosovar independence in principle," he said.

Hashim Thaci, whose Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has been reinvented as the Kosovo Democratic Party (PDK), says: "We didn't fight our war to make changes in Belgrade. The murderous Serbian military belongs to Kostunica as much as it did to Milosevic."

The demand for independence is about the only thing the competing parties have in common. No one expects this venture into democracy to be smooth, and the 43,000 Nato-led peacekeepers have been practising riot control. The fear is of intimidation prior to voting and of losers turning to violence.

The men most likely to do so are Hashim Thaci's PDK. After Nato's entry into the former Serbian province, the KLA took control of many areas and institutions while the UN dithered. The PDK is not expected to do well in the poll and observers believe they will not meekly give up positions that have allowed them to pursue lucrative forms of criminality.

The consensus is that Ibrahim Rugova's party is likely to emerge with the most votes. Mr Rugova, a French-educated professor of literature and a pacifist, is loathed by the former fighters of the KLA, who accuse him of selling out to the Serbs.

Mr Thaci told a party rally in Pristina: "You can choose between the new political class which brought the most powerful allies [Nato] to Kosovo, or the old political class which spent 10 years making compromises with Milosevic."

The Americans remain sympathetic to Mr Thaci and Kosovar independence, and Richard Holbrooke, the US ambassador to the UN, has astonished European allies by saying parliamentary elections should be held in Kosovo by next spring.

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