Kosovo is conducting its first Parliamentary elections since the United Nations began administering the Yugoslav province in 1999. Parties representing Kosovo's Albanian majority have promised to fight for independence from the Yugoslav federation, while Serbs left in the province say they will struggle against it. The elections take place amidst tight security.
Without discussing details, NATO officials said Saturday that the international peacekeepers in the province stepped up security to prevent intimidation of voters during Kosovo's first Parliamentary elections under U.N. administration.
Analysts suggest the heightened security comes amid increasing division in the province's minority Serb community, which remains bitterly split over whether to take part in a vote many see as another step towards the end of the Yugoslav federation.
The newly-elected Parliament will choose Kosovo's President, and endorse the candidate Prime Minister and his proposed cabinet. Under the international community's strict directives, the 120 seat Kosovo Assembly can not declare independence from Yugoslavia during its first three year term.
Instead NATO, the U.N. and other organizations expect it to concentrate on the creation of a multi-cultural society with democratic and economic reforms. But in the war-ravaged province where ethnic hatred remains evident in everyday life, that seems easier said than done.
Leaders of Kosovo's Albanian majority have already made it clear that they view this historic election as another step towards independence. Among these politicians is ethnic Albanian pacifist Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, which is widely predicted to win most seats.
Mr. Rugova, who is expected to become Kosovo's first democratically elected post war President, said this week that independence was the most precious word for Albanians and that he wanted it as soon as possible. The two other main Albanian parties have also campaigned for independence, but their Kosovo Liberation Army fighters - turned politicians are not expected to attract many voters.
Despite Albanian calls for independence, European diplomats are satisfied that about 175,000 Serbs registered to vote. Many of them had fled Kosovo to neighboring Serbia because of revenge attacks carried out by ethnic Albanians, which killed dozens of people. The attacks began soon after 78 days of NATO airstrikes forced Serb troops to withdraw from the province in 1999, ending fighting that is believed to have killed at least 10,000 people, most of them ethnic Albanians.
But Serb candidates say they will work hard to prevent independence for Kosovo, which they claim will only lead to more misery and suffering for the region. They have also urged the international community to better protect Kosovo's minority Serbs, at a time when the province prepares for a new political era. Serbs are guaranteed at least 10 seats in the future parliament, but could get 20 or more if their turn-out is high.