Kosovo votes ahead of independence showdown

The breakaway province of Kosovo holds a parliamentary election on Saturday, ahead of a showdown with Serbia over the ethnic Albanian majority’s demand for independence.

Prime Minister Agim Ceku is stepping down, so the election will bring in new leadership as last-ditch negotiations between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians reach a climax, with no glimmer of an agreement in sight.

But whoever wins, Kosovo’s position will not change: voters are certain to return a government pledged to declare independence after an international trio of mediators end the talks and report to the United Nations by December 10.

Ex-guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci and his opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo enjoy a narrow lead in opinion polls, but would have to share power, possibly with the Democratic League of Kosovo of late independence icon Ibrahim Rugova.

Thaci, bidding to become prime minister, told Reuters this week it was “just a matter of setting the date” for a declaration of independence. “Kosovo and Serbia could talk for another 100 years and never agree,” he said.

Serbia’s ally Russia has blocked a proposal for Kosovo independence in the United Nations Security Council.

But Kosovo’s two million Albanians are counting on the United States and Europe to recognise the last state to be carved from the old Yugoslavia. In Washington on Wednesday, the State Department’s Nicholas Burns repeated that the United States backs independence supervised by a European Union mission.

The Kosovo daily Express on Thursday quoted what it said was an internal French foreign ministry report, saying major Western powers expected a unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008.

Serb boycott

EU mediator Wolfgang Ischinger sees no hope of agreement on status.
Instead he proposes inviting Serbs and Kosovo Albanians to sign a deal that ignores the issue of independence, the Voice of America quoted him as saying in Washington earlier this week.

“It won’t contain a single word about status,” said Ischinger, who is due to host a further round of talks in Brussels on Tuesday.

Writing in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, outgoing Prime Minister Agim Ceku said discussion of status was “a dead end”.

“Serbia can’t accept that independence is inevitable; we know that independence is nothing but inevitable, and can’t be compromised on or delayed,” the former Kosovo guerrilla wrote.

After December 10, “Kosovo alone will declare its independence, but in an atmosphere of international satisfaction that serious negotiations have been taken as far as possible”, he said.

The election for the 120-seat Kosovo Parliament is the third since 1999, when Nato bombed Serbia to save Kosovo Albanian civilians from ethnic cleansing in a counter-insurgency war.

Albanians had taken up arms to end a decade of repression under late Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, whose brutal response sent almost one million civilians to flight.

Western powers leading a 16 000-strong Nato peace force see no prospect of returning Kosovo to Serb rule, and worry that Albanian frustrations at life in limbo could provoke violence.

The election campaign has been dominated by party pledges to tackle 60% unemployment, minimal foreign investment and rampant corruption—if only statehood would come.

Reluctant to give legitimacy to a parliament threatening to declare independence, Serb leaders and the Orthodox Church have told Kosovo’s 120 000 remaining Serbs to boycott the elections. - Reuters

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