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Europe

Election in Kosovo Mirrors Ethnic Conflict

Saturday's election in Kosovo is a landmark event on the road to establishing a free and independent Kosovo, but many Serbs fear the elections could widen the ethnic conflict.

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Campaign poster in Pristina proclaims "Freedom, Independence, Democracy"

Two and a half years after NATO bombs ended Serbian rule, the people of Kosovo are lining up at the polls for a milestone election. For the first time in history they will be voting for a self-governing Kosovo legislature.

After the heavy-handed Serbian rule under Slobodan Milosovic was brought to an end by NATO troops in 1999, the United Nations moved in and began paving the way for the establishment of a self-governing Kosovo. The goal of the international peace keeping coalition was to create an independent Kosovo in which the oppressed Albanian majority would regain its rights while still respecting those of the Serbian minority. Saturday's election is a step in that direction.

It is a vote, however, that mirrors the country's ethnic division. The election is open for 1.25 million people, both ethnic Albanians and Serbs. But many international observers are questioning how many of Kosovo's beleaguered Serbs will actually participate in the elections.

Will Serbs vote?

Many Kosovo-Serbs have said they will not vote. In northern Kosovo, where the Serb population is larger, several outspoken opponents of the Albanians have urged the Serb community to stay away from the election. In the Serb-dominated enclave of the city Mitrovica shops have hung anti-election posters proclaiming "Say no to the Albanian government".

Last Friday, 2000 ethnic Serbs gathered in Mitrovica to demonstrate against the elections. The leader of the committee to defend northern Kosovo, Milan Ivanovic, rallied the Serbs to an election boycott. "Voting on Saturday is tantamount to accepting an Albanian government," he said.

Earlier in the month the Yugoslav leadership in Belgrade came out in favor of Serbs participating in the election. Rada Trajkovic, a Serbian member of the interim government is convinced that if the Serbs do not vote, they will not be represented in the new legislature. The Serbian situation would then be even worse off.

And yet many Kosovo-Serbs fear an outbreak of violence on Saturday, and are staying indoors, far away from the polls. They claim the Serbian community and the international community is not doing enough to ensure their safety.

As a sign of this, less than 10 people tuned up at polling stations in the Serb-dominated side of Mitrovica an hour after voting had started.