Kosovo Elections Could Be Step Towards Independence, Says Analyst

By Beth Kampschror | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Sarajevo (CNSNews.com) - Kosovo's weekend election of a provisional national assembly is a first step towards ending the destabilizing uncertainty over the province's future, because for the first time Kosovo is building its own institutions, a regional analyst said Tuesday.

However, the expected push for independence by Kosovo's new leaders could bring them into conflict with the U.S. and international community, which opposes independence for what officially remains a province of Serbia.

"It would be politically naive to imagine that these elections didn't change anything in regard to this key issue," said International Crisis Group's Kosovo project director Peter Palmer by telephone from Pristina.

"The establishment of these institutions completely transforms the political environment," he said. "Whatever the formal rules might say, the [Kosovar] Albanians themselves will expect their democratic mandate to be respected. Although they may be patient for the time being, I think they're going to be expecting before too long to push for independence."

The 120-member assembly will elect a president and form a provisional government, and will rule alongside the interim U.N. administration and NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo.

Kosovo has been under U.N. control since 1999, following a 78-day NATO bombing campaign which drove from the province Serb forces accused of widespread abuses against the ethnic Albanian majority.

The new assembly has no powers to take steps towards independence, something all three of Kosovo's main ethnic Albanian political parties advocate.

According to preliminary results from Saturday's election, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), led by longtime pacifist Ibrahim Rugova, won about 46 percent of the vote. Taking about 26 percent of the vote was the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), led by former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Hashim Thaci.

Kosovo Serbs represented by the five-party Return Coalition won about 11 percent, and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo won about 8 percent.

Palmer said the results do not necessarily show that voters are turning away from former rebel leaders in support of pacifists. He noted that the LDK had lost popularity in recent years, while the PDK had made gains.

"We should be cautious about reading too much into the results of the elections," he said. "The LDK is the oldest party [and many people] supported the LDK, not because of preference, but rather out of habit. I think this election is showing that [the PDK] is on the way up and that the LDK is on the way down."

Because the LDK lacks an absolute majority, Rugova will have to form a coalition to gain the two-thirds assembly majority required for him to become president. From there, Palmer predicted, Rugova will work for the independence he has always advocated.

"There's nothing new from a week ago or a year ago in this respect," Palmer said. "More important is what he will actually do to achieve that goal. Rugova ... hopes to be president, and as president he will through diplomatic means [aim to achieve independence]."

The United States joined the European Union and others this week in calling on Kosovo's new leaders to avoid the independence issue altogether. The international community does not support an independent Kosovo.

"We urge Kosovo's new leaders to continue working closely with the international community, and to avoid any action that may threaten that relationship, particularly with respect to Kosovo's final status," said State Department deputy spokesperson Philip Reeker in a statement Monday.