02 April 2007

Wary of the future, Kosovo Serbs go to the polls

Agence France Presse, 21 Jan 2007 by Nebojsa Markovic


KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Serbia, Jan 21, 2007 (AFP) - Serbs voting Sunday in Kosovo were clearly worried that their breakaway province, dominated by ethnic Albanians, was on the threshold of independence.


"Whichever party wins, they will have something and we will have nothing. That's politics," said 30-year-old Dusan Mutavdzic with resignation after casting his ballot in Serbia's general elections.


Together with his family, Mutavdzic fled his central Kosovo village of Istok in 1999 to escape reprisal attacks from ethnic Albanians after NATO drove Serb forces out of the southern province.


Kosovo's Serb minority has little more than 100,000 voters, but ethnic Albanians -- who comprise 90 percent of the province's population -- have boycotted Serbian elections since the 1990s.


After the withdrawal of Serb forces almost eight years ago, many Kosovo Serbs found shelter in the northern half of Mitrovica, turning it into a tense town divided along ethnic lines.


"These elections will have no influence on Kosovo's status, as the politicians are saying," stressed Mutavdzic.


"It will be as (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and (US President George W.) Bush say," said the unemployed former farmer.


The atmosphere in Mitrovica in the run up to the elections was devoid of the tensions that have so often led to violence here in the past.


Many families came out to enjoy surprisingly warm winter weather, finishing market chores before strolling towards a big college, now home to two polling stations in the town with almost 20,000 registered Serb voters.


Some of them tried to downplay fears for the future, despite persistent rumours that Kosovo will become independent from Serbia within weeks.


"What can I expect? I have no hopes any more for a better future," said 52-year-old housewife Veselinka Petrovic.


Angry with politicians, Petrovic said she was "fed up with promises."


"Everyone just talks and talks, doing nothing," she said.


"They don't care about Kosovo, but will do what the foreign powers tell them to do," she added.


NATO-led peacekeepers could be seen patrolling Mitrovica streets, but not in large numbers. A notorious bridge over the river Ibar, which divides the town between its ethnic Albanian and Serb communities, was almost empty.


Only a handful of ethnic Albanian boys could be seen in the southern part of the town, nonchalantly watching over the bridge.


However, there were some optimists in a densely packed cafe-bar near the bridge on the Serb side of the town.


"I expect it to be better for us here in Kosovo after the polls, no matter who wins," said 32-year-old Ninoslav Djelic.


"All parties pledge that Kosovo will remain in Serbia, and I hope they will keep their promise," he added.


His friend Nemanja Jaksic agreed, but insisted the outcome of status talks would "depend highly of the winner of the elections, as they will guarantee security for us."


"I expect the victory of democratic forces, who are the only ones that can revitalise Serbia, thus helping us in Kosovo to survive," said the Mitrovica student.


In the Serb enclave of Gracanica village, near the provincial capital Pristina, influential Serbian Orthodox Church Bishop Artemije said he expected the future Serbian government to "never accept Kosovo's secession from Serbia."


"The duty of a new government, no matter who it will consist of, is to never ... accept that Kosovo secede from the state and legal system of Serbia," Bishop Artemije said after voting.


"We hope, we work on that and we pray to our Lord that Kosovo remains within Serbia," he added.


The Serbian poll coincided with the first anniversary of the death of Kosovo's first president Ibrahim Rugova, which was marked by a commemoration ceremony in the provincial capital Pristina.


Rugova was the "founder of the state of Kosovo as well as spiritual and historic leader of the nation" of ethnic Albanians, his successor Fatmir Sejdiu said, pledging to fight for "his vision of independence."