With vote, Kosovo draws closer to autonomous rule


PRISTINA, Kosovo - At a polling place inside a heavily guarded Serbian housing project, a woman was shouting angrily at international observers of yesterday's election in Kosovo, a first step toward democracy after a decade of violence.

She wanted a Serbian flag to fly outside. "We are Serbs and should at least have our flag with us," said the woman, Darinka Bjeletic, one of only a few hundred Serbs in Pristina, down from 20,000 before the war.

Serbs and Albanians turned out in large numbers yesterday to elect a 120-seat provincial assembly that will, in turn, choose a president. The election is supposed to move the Serbian province Kosovo closer to establishing a government that could replace the United Nations officials who have run Kosovo for the more than two years since NATO bombing forced Yugoslav troops to withdraw.

Unofficial results released near midnight by the Center for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedom showed a clear winner, the Democratic League of Kosovo headed by Ibrahim Rugova, who led ethnic Albanians in their peaceful revolt for years after Serbs stripped them of autonomy here in 1989. He seems to have finished well ahead of the other two major Albanian parties, which are headed by former Kosovo Liberation Army commanders.

Though the final tally will not be ready until tomorrow, the initial indications are that moderate Ibrahim Rugova's party received 47 percent of the vote, compared with 26 percent for Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo, 9 percent for Ramush Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, and 8 percent for the Serbian party, with a margin of 3 points.

Like Bjeletic, most Serbs in Pristina, the capital, live here in the Yu Project, a cluster of drab concrete apartment buildings, financed by the government in Belgrade, where residents are under the 24-hour protection of NATO troops every day. A rocket-propelled grenade was fired at one of the units last year, and several windows through which stones were thrown are broken still.

But remarkably, given recent history, by midday the sort of mild protest registered by Bjeletic was about as bad as it had gotten at any of the 1,668 polling places in Kosovo, observers said.

"We haven't had any incidents at all, except over people wanting their flags, which they're not supposed to have" because they inevitably lead to fights, said Philip Watkins, an election official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is overseeing the vote.

He said officials expected a turnout close to the 79 percent that voted in last year's municipal races, Kosovo's first democratic elections.

There was a heavy military presence everywhere, just in case. But officials were reacting as though the biggest security threat might come from the United States, in the form of potentially anthrax-tainted absentee ballots mailed from abroad.

At a compound outside town run by the European election officials, 13 election workers and observers in protective plastic suits, gloves and surgical masks were opening - though not counting - 15,000 ballot envelopes, to make sure they were safe.

At an elementary school near the center of town, some of those in the long line of Albanians waiting to vote were emotional, but only because they were happy, they said. "I feel beautiful," said a 71-year-old retired high school teacher, Sadri Alaj.

Of course, Albanians and Serbs were voting with different motives yesterday. The Albanian majority still hopes that the election of the assembly is their first step toward independence from Yugoslavia, in which Serbia is the dominant remaining republic, though the body is explicitly barred from voting on the issue.

The Serbian minority - only about 100,000 of the 2 million people in Kosovo - boycotted last year's elections and were deeply divided about whether to participate yesterday.

They finally did so, though, after Serbian officials in Belgrade put the word out that it was better for them to have a voice in the assembly if only to put the brakes on any Albanian attempts to gain independence.

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