The people of Kosovo are voting Saturday for a new local government. All the main political parties in the Albanian-majority province have pledged to gain independence from Serbia. Kosovo's Serbian minority is expected to boycott the vote. Stefan Bos has details.
Kosovo's parliament has reserved 10 seats for the Serbian minority, but witnesses say Serb voters appeared to be heeding a call to boycott Saturday's poll.
Oliver Ivanovic, a Kosovo Serb leader, says he is not surprised.
"Local fellows of the government are pressing the local people not to appear at the voting booths," he said. "That pressure is practically not needed because all people are concerned that participation in the election can undermine the negotiation position of the Serbian delegation."
Saturday's elections for new legislative and municipal representatives are the first organized by local authorities since 1999, when the United Nations took control over the province following the ouster of Serb forces by NATO.
Serbs comprise less than 10 percent of Kosovo's mainly ethnic Albanian population of over 2 million people, and officials have expressed concerns about their future after the ballot.
Serbian Prime Minister Voijislav Kostunica has told reporters in Budapest this week that he still hopes to reach a compromise. He says he is ready to provide Kosovo with autonomy or independence within the borders of Serbia. Officials have compared that compromise with the status of Hong Kong in China.
Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Kostunica said any other solution would violate Serbia's constitution.
"Serbia also has a democratic constitution which very clearly articulates that Kosovo is an inseparable part of Serbia. So in this respect should any attempts being made to declare independence, Serbia by all means appeal."
Kosovo's main ethnic Albanian candidates have rejected anything other than full independence for Kosovo.
Despite the controversy, the commander of the NATO-led 'KFOR' force in Kosovo, Lieutenant-General Xavier Bout de Marnhac, says he hopes Serbs and ethnic Albanians will both vote in the elections.
"KFOR would be ready and there are a sufficient number of troops will be deployed in the field to provide security," he said. "So my message is to any citizens, 'You have the freedom to vote in a safe and secure environment and please use your right to vote.' I think this is important for the future of Kosovo."
Prime Minister Agim Ceku, a former separatist guerrilla commander, is stepping down as Kosovo's prime minister. The ruling Democratic League of Kosovo is in a tight race against the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo, led by Hashim Thaci, another former guerrilla. Pre-election surveys showed the opposition holding a narrow lead.
Thaci has promised his voters a complete break from Serbia almost immediately after December 10, when internationally supervised talks with Belgrade end.
Despite the campaign pledge, the opposition party is not expected to receive enough votes to avoid forming a coalition with the ruling party.