News Reports - Yugoslavia
September 24, 2000
With Election Fraud Feared, Kosovo Could Be the Key
By CARLOTTA GALL
PRISTINA, Kosovo, Sept. 23 — With its Serbian population largely departed, and an Albanian population refusing to take part in Sunday's Yugoslav elections, Kosovo would seem unimportant in the battle for votes. Yet, in one of the Balkans' many ironies, the one part of Yugoslavia that the West controls may supply the swing that brings victory for the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic.
Western officials here fear that Mr. Milosevic will claim hundreds of thousands of votes cast in his favor by voters from Kosovo, as he has done in previous elections. The United Nations administration, while it is refusing to take part in organizing the elections, is urgently putting together a plan to watch the voting so it can dismiss any obvious fraudulent claims on the day.
Unable to deny the Serbs of Kosovo the right to vote in these elections, Dr. Bernard Kouchner, the chief United Nations administrator of Kosovo, has had to allow a highly suspect election process to unfold.
"Yes, the Serbs in Kosovo, and all Kosovars, have the right to take part in these elections, but it is a provocation and can be manipulated," he said in an interview here. "The elections have no democratic standards according to European norms, no voter lists and the main candidate is wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague," he said, referring to Mr. Milosevic's indictment last year for alleged war crimes in Kosovo.
Without any attempt to inform Dr. Kouchner, pro-Belgrade officials announced that they would organize the vote in Kosovo, throwing international officials into a flap.
It took Dr. Kouchner eight days to decide what to do. Albanian leaders protested, refusing to tolerate an election in Kosovo run by the Serbian authorities that they so detest. Serbian opposition leaders also asked Dr. Kouchner to refuse to allow the election in Kosovo, saying that it would provide Mr. Milosevic with enormous scope for fraud.
The United Nations is now hastily trying to scotch any possibility of faking votes. Extra troops have been brought in to supplement the peacekeeping force in case of violence after British troops uncovered a Yugoslav Army operation to disrupt elections. And 150 election teams, as well as international administrators, will be out to watch how many people turn out to vote, so at least they can discount any inflated results.
No Western organization will monitor the Yugoslav elections, and observers in Kosovo will formally have nothing to do with them. "As far as Kosovo is concerned, it is so obvious that the elections are substandard that we cannot lend our legitimacy to them," said Daan Everts, head of the Kosovo mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In practice, however, O.S.C.E. election monitors, already in place for Kosovo's own local elections in October, will be out on Sunday to gauge the turnout. "We will have a solid understanding of the level of voting," said a senior State Department official visiting the region.
At stake are possibly half a million votes — most of the margin that some estimate Mr. Milosevic will need to secure victory in the first round against opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica, who leads in the opinion polls.
There has been no registration of Serbs living in Kosovo since NATO peacekeepers moved in last year, but United Nations officials say there are roughly 100,000 Serbs still here, 60,000 of them eligible to vote. Most of them live in the northern part of the province and the rest in scattered, often isolated enclaves around the territory. Mr. Milosevic still probably commands more support in Kosovo than elsewhere, but any result claiming more than 50,000 votes for him will be suspect, United Nations officials said.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has meanwhile registered 180,000 displaced Kosovo Serbs now living in Serbia, although Belgrade often uses the figure of 350,000, revealing another area for potential vote rigging.
Yet it is the Albanian vote that is really significant and could be used to inflate results in Mr. Milosevic's favor. There are almost one million eligible Albanian voters registered in Kosovo in recent months in preparation for Kosovo's elections. Virtually none of them are expected to vote on Sunday because the Albanians have boycotted Yugoslav ballots for 10 years, believing that to participate is to recognize Belgrade's rule.
Mr. Everts of O.S.C.E. said: "Ordinary people do not want to join anything that has to do with Serbia. That's why they do not want to use Yugoslav Mobtel cell phones or renew their Yugoslav passports."