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Kosovo's local elections offer hope of Serb-Albanian reconciliation

Some Serbs have decided to run — and vote — in Kosovo's elections despite Belgrade's protests.

It’s unclear if Serbs will turn out in great numbers. Polls surveying Kosovar Serbs throughout the country haven’t been conducted, but a Kosovo NGO, Kontakt, recently released a survey that found that 28 percent of Gracanica voters intended to case ballots.

Forty percent of Gracanica voters hadn’t decided, the survey found, while 32 percent opposed Serbs voting — a position Belgrade has encouraged. Most observers believe turnout will be negligible in northern Serbian enclaves like Mitrovica, which are officially part of Kosovo but where the Serbian government holds sway.

''Those Serbs who would take part in the elections should ask themselves whether they are helping the state of Serbia save Kosovo or weighing down on our fight to preserve our sovereignty and territorial integrity,'' Serbia's Minister for Kosovo, Goran Bogdanovic, told Belgrade’s B92 television news on Tuesday.

Milan and Bilijana Stemkovich, a 30-something couple, were representative of the divisions in the Serb community. Walking in Gracanica on Nov. 8, Milan said he would vote because it was time to turn a new page in Kosovo’s history. Bilijana was more cynical. “My house was burned in the war,” she said. “I’m disappointed. Therefore, I won’t vote.”

Many Kosovar Albanians aren’t happy about the election, either. Critics say Ahtisaari conceded too much to Serbs, who will never pledge their loyalty to Kosovo. “We’re giving all the rights to the Serbs and they don’t give back,” said Rame Saliha, a Pristina taxi driver. “After six months in the new municipalities, you’re going to see their flags waving.”

Arben Gashi, an adviser to Pristina Mayor Isa Mustafa, said he understood why Kosovar Albanians were leery of Serbs gaining more power, but he added that nobody would reverse the process. “It’s the price you pay for Kosovo independence,” he said.

The expected Serb turnout reflected a new atmosphere in Kosovo, Gashi added. Ethnic Albanians have achieved sufficient security to be more accepting of their ethnic-Serb neighbors who previously were associated with Belgrade’s repression. Serbs can feel it, he said.

“A Serbian can come into the city with illegal license plates, old Serbian license plates,” he said. “You knew he’s a Serb. No one cares.”