Kosovo Serbs vote under threat of secession

BANJSKA, Serbia – The plum brandy flowed freely at polling station No. 9 in Banjska, northern Kosovo, as Serbs voted for a new president.

History suggests Serbs in the breakaway Serbian province will turn out in their tens of thousands to vote for ultranationalist Radical candidate Tomislav Nikolic in Sunday’s election, a vote ignored by the 90-percent Albanian majority.

The election could decide Serbia’s future ties with the United States and European Union after Kosovo’s 2 million Albanians declare independence with Western backing, a move expected weeks after a likely second-round run-off on February 3.

Bosanka Prodanovic refused to reveal who she voted for, but she bristled at any idea of reconciliation with the West:

“I expect our next president to battle harder for Kosovo, and to stop the humiliation of the Serb people by the West,” she said at the polling station set up in a Banjska cafe.

From behind the bar, it was clear many of the 260 registered voters — who cast their ballots under a 2007 calendar of Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic — were circling No. 1 for Nikolic.

There were few posters for pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic, although polls suggest he could win in the second round.

Opposite the main polling station in ethnically-divided Mitrovica, the owner of ‘Cafe-Bar Sale’ rigged a stereo speaker on his terrace and blasted the nationalist Radical anthem glorifying the Serb ‘Chetnik’ fighters of World War Two.

“Say no more,” said a photographer.

Serbia has had no formal control over Kosovo since 1999, when NATO bombing drove out Serb forces to halt their killing and ethnic cleansing of Albanians in a two-year war against separatist rebels led by new Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

Thaci travels to Brussels on January 23, where Albanians expect him to agree on a date for Kosovo’s parliament to declare independence, after Serb ally Russia blocked the territory’s secession at the United Nations Security Council.

PARALLEL LIVES

Kosovo’s 120,000 remaining Serbs, who regularly boycott elections the province’s local elections, eye the future with uncertainty, and hope the nationalists will protect them.

“I voted for (Milutin) Mrkonjic,” said pensioner and ex-footballer Petar Milosavljevic, referring to the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of Serbia, the party of late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

“I’m not a member of the party,” he said. “But Milosevic saved the Serbs at Kosovo Polje.”

That’s where it all began, on the fields of Kosovo Polje near the capital Pristina, where in 1989 Milosevic spoke to over 500,000 Serbs to mark the 600th anniversary of their epic loss to the Turks that raised the curtain on 500 years of Ottoman rule. He warned of battles to come to protect the Serb people.

Four wars later Yugoslavia is no more, and Kosovo is a U.N. protectorate occupied by 16,000 NATO peacekeepers.

Up to 200,000 Serbs and other minorities fled Kosovo with the pullout of Serb forces in June 1999, and some of those who stayed might follow them after Albanians strike out alone.

Swift recognition is expected from the United States and major EU members. But Serbia says it will not give up and is encouraging Kosovo Serbs to reject unilateral secession, raising the prospect of an ethnic partition the West has long ruled out.

“Here we lead parallel lives,” hardline Serb leader Milan Ivanovic told Reuters. “These elections show we don’t want Albanian institutions or their independence. This is the reality.”

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