The people of Kosovo vote in municipal elections on Saturday, choosing city councils responsible for running day-to-day services like health care, education, and economic planning. United Nations organizers hope the elections will help lay the basis for reconciliation between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.
Political observers say there are two key things to watch in Kosovo's municipal elections. One is just how many of Kosovo's minority Serbs will turn out to vote. The other is whether President Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo party will hang on to its municipal seats or lose some of them to challenger Hashim Thaci, a former Kosovo Liberation Army leader. Both are ethnic-Albanian.
At the lone Serb building in a block of dismal concrete flats occupied by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo's Ulpiana district, children play ball. Darinka Urosevac is one of the few Serbs to venture out of the building protected by KFOR international peacekeepers.
She says there is no point in voting because who is there to vote for. She insists that there is no Serb and no Albanian running for office willing to help refugees like herself. She complains that Serbs are not free to move about, fearing reprisals from Albanians.
Another ethnic-Serb, Mirko Kalezic, who earns a few dollars a month cleaning the building, says he will vote. He says needed jobs and more places for the Serbs in local government will only come by voting. "I think we have to vote because we need co-existence in Kosovo and without co-existence we will have no future for us in Kosovo," said Mirko Kalezic.
An ethnic-Serb leader in the Kosovo parliament Rada Trakovevic has been calling on all Serbs to vote so that they will be represented on local councils not only in Serb-dominated areas of Kosovo, but also where they are in the minority. She says integrating Serbs into the majority Albanian population will be difficult. "Once the Albanians had the power, once the Serbs, but they will never be integrated together," she said.
Some Serbs said they would not vote in order to protest what they say has been insufficient security and a lack of progress by the international community to return ethnic Serbian refugees to Kosovo.
About 23,000 Serbs fled Kosovo three years ago when the United Nations took up the administration of the province after the NATO bombing forced Serbia to give up control. Kosovo is legally part of Yugoslavia but its Albanian majority seeks independence.
Some 90,000 Serbs remain mostly in enclaves under NATO protection against ethnically motivated attacks by Kosovo's Albanians seeking revenge for wrongs committed against them during the Balkan wars. 90 percent of Kosovo's two million people are ethnic-Albanians.
But Albanian bookseller Azem Zogaj disagrees with the view that Albanians and Serbs can never be truly integrated.
He says many Albanians believe it is even more important for Serbs to be integrated and equal with others living in Kosovo. But he says the election will not suddenly see reconciliation flourish between the communities. He says it will take time.
For other Albanian voters, like Kadri Ilakzasmici, the election is focusing on whether President Rugova's party will maintain its council seats or lose some of them to main political rival Hashim Thaci.
Mr. Ilakzasmici says he is fed up with the ruling party failing to make good on promises to improve peoples' daily lives. The retired man says he has been forced to sell eggs on the streets because the government does not pay his monthly $28 pension and that is why he is switching his vote to opponent Hashim Thaci.
Nearly 1.5 million people are registered to vote in Kosovo, including some 180,000 Serb refugees living elsewhere.