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Kosovo Status a Post-Election Challenge for Serbian Leaders

More than five million citizens of Serbia are to vote Sunday in the country's first parliamentary election in three years. Soon after the election, Serbia's leaders will have to grapple with the future status of Kosovo Province, which has been under international control since 1999. VOA's Barry Wood reports from Belgrade there has been little discussion, during the campaign, of options for Kosovo's future.

In Serbia's election campaign, Kosovo is addressed mainly in terms of patriotism and national identity. Candidates say the province is the cradle of the Serbian nation and a center of its orthodox Christian church.

Any suggestion Kosovo and its 90 percent ethnic-Albanian population could become independent is rejected. But United Nations negotiators indicate they are likely to soon propose at least conditional independence for Kosovo.

Social Democratic Union Party leader Zarko Korac says there has been no rational discussion among candidates of how Serbia will react to the proposal for Kosovo's future.

"It is all symbolism. It is all political phrases," he said. "And there will be a very dear price to be paid after the election. [What should be] The biggest political problem in Serbia, actually, is figuring in this election campaign only symbolically."

Korac and his left-of-center electoral allies say Kosovo has been de-facto independent since NATO intervened in response to repression of the Albanian majority and drove Serbian troops out of the province.

Korac worries that the election will produce no clear winner and that incumbent Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica could call for a national unity government that would include the ultra-nationalist radicals, who are expected to get up to 30 percent of the vote.

"And you [therefore] might have a very strange non-functional government that would serve only to boost Serbian nationalism and to reject western influences," he said. "That is my biggest fear."

Human rights activist Sonja Biserko also worries that Mr. Kostunica will turn to the right and embrace the Radicals in an effort to retain power.

"I think he [Kostunica] also showed [in this campaign] that his [Democratic Party of Serbia] is really this populist [nationalistic] party similar to the radicals and has nothing to do with a democratic option," she said.

Opinion surveys suggest that Mr. Kostunica's party will come third in the election with up to 20 percent of the vote.

Biserko says her biggest fear is that Mr. Kostunica will respond to the Kosovo status proposal by calling for the Serbian minority to leave the territory. The international proposal for Kosovo is likely to be presented to the major U.N. powers by the end of this month.