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On the Road to Recovery in Kosovo

Counting is underway in Kosovo after what are being called the first free and democratic elections in the history of the Yugoslav province.

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Ethnic Albanians lined up for voting in Pristina on Saturday.

On Saturday the population of Kosovo lined up at polling stations to chose members of a 120-seat general legislative assembly, an election hailed by the West as a milestone on the way to establishing stability in the region.

It will be several days yet before official results reveal the exact composition of legislature, but it was clear before Saturday's vote that parties from the ethnic Albanian majority which favors independence would predominate.

Unofficial results say Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo and an ethnic Albanian, has received 47 percent of the vote, well ahead of the Democratic Party of Kosovo leader and former guerrilla fighter Hashim Thaci.

Ibrahim Rugova

"This is an historic day for all of us. These elections are very important because they are for an independent Kosovo, for a free Kosovo, for economic progress and for the good of all Kosovo citizens," Rugova was quoted as saying on Saturday.

Serbs go to the polls

International officials praised the fact that nearly 46 percent of the ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo took part in the election. Until Saturday it was not certain how many actually would turn out to vote. Many leaders in Kosovo-Serb communities had urged their fellow Serbs to boycott the vote, claiming participation was the equivalent to endorsement of an Albanian-ruled Kosovo.

Election observers said that the high turnout of Serbs boded well for reconciliation between the two ethnically divided communities.

"These elections represent a remarkable step forwards towards normality and give all communities in Kosovo the chance to build a truly democratic, multi-ethnic and prosperous society," NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said.

A unified Serb party could win about 20 seats in the new assembly, Serb leaders said on Saturday. Although this would not be enough to veto Albanian led legislation, the number of seats would better reflect the ethnic composition of the province and ensure that Serbs get their say in the government.

Status uncertain

The new assembly will be allowed to pass laws and choose a new president - but it will not have the power to change the status of the province, which is still being carefully monitored by the international community.

Legally the province is still part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, but has been a de facto Western protectorate since NATO's bombing campaign drove out Slobodan Milosevic's Serb forces in June 1999. Many ethnic Albanians hope the elections on Saturday will be the first step towards independence.

It will be a long road to complete self-governance, UN officials say. For the time-being the Kosovo legislature will only have a limited say in passing laws. The international presence will remain strong in the region, with both NATO and the UN keeping a watchful eye on developments. The ministry of defense will be in the hands of NATO whereas the ministries of interior and justice will be governed by UN officials.

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