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Kosovan prime minister claims election victory

Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, is claiming he has won the nation's first parliamentary election, since it declared unilateral independence from Serbia three years ago.

But with unprecedented poverty, corruption and ethnic divisions, the new government will need to answer the public’s call for change. However, many believe the candidates still represent the same problems.

Voters told RT they wanted change, a fresh start in Kosovo and that it is the ongoing, everyday issues of unemployment and living standards that they care about.

“The economic situation here is bad so we’re waiting for better days. But we don’t expect miracles!” one of the voters said.

“I believe things will get better now but for me, the biggest problem is corruption,” another man told RT.

The poll is seen as key in demonstrating Kosovo’s political maturity.

"These historic elections are totally free and fair, we know that they are the first real test of our new democracy," Fadil Maloku of the Central Election Commission noted.

As election fever gripped Kosovo, candidates were promising to tackle unemployment and ethnic discrimination. But the Serb minority feared their vote would do little to bring down the barriers in the Albanian-dominated self-proclaimed state.

Polling was due to take place in early 2011, but the elections were brought forward, triggered by November’s parliamentary vote of no confidence in the governing coalition.

Candidates from 29 parties and independent lists are running for the 120 seats in Kosovo's parliament, with the two main parties expected to dominate the vote. They are Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo, the PDK, and its former coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo, or the LDK.

However, the two parties are currently overwhelmed by rifts and internal fracturing. And more seriously, some members of the parties are under investigation for crimes ranging from corruption to abuse of office.

The leader of what is traditionally seen as Kosovo’s third largest party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, is currently awaiting a retrial by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Critics argue that such men should not be allowed to stand as they damage the reputation and undermine the legitimacy of these elections.

“It’s a big problem here in Kosovo, the corruption, and organized crime too. And lots of cases of ministers of this government are under investigation,” says Burim Ramadani from the “Alliance for Future of Kosovo” party. “It’s a big problem. So, we want to change that. We cannot continue with this mentality, with this logic.”

“There are new initiatives which could eventually help improve the political system,” Avni Zogiani, the head of anti-corruption organization COHU, told RT. “But as for the political parties that are in power now, because of the impunity over politics that’s existed until now, this practically renders them as substantially corrupt.”

At the same time, some newer parties seem to have been able to make their mark. While older parties built their campaigns around the ongoing promise of EU and NATO membership, the new ones focused on the “bread and butter” issues of corruption and unemployment.

Kosovo has Europe’s youngest population, and unemployment runs as high as 50 percent, according to some estimates. Kosovo’s economy is one of the weakest in Europe and there is endemic corruption at all levels of public life.

Society deeply divided along ethnic lines

However, the main problem is that Kosovo remains deeply divided between the majority Albanian community, which makes up some 90 percent of the population, and the much smaller Serbian community.

Although there was fear of a low turnout, it did not come true, and the elections are said to be successful. However, the majority of all those who cast their ballots are expected to be Albanians.

Whereas Albanians feel very optimistic about an election that they have called historical, the same feelings are not shared by the Serbian minority.

The Serbs feel much more divided. Although they want to vote to bring about change, on the other hand they say they suffer daily discrimination and poor living conditions, which means they do not necessarily want to engage in Kosovo’s electoral system.

Serbs have 10 parliamentary seats allocated to them.

In the north of the province, Serbs were expected to heed the call from the Serbian government to boycott these elections. But those from the south might have gone to the polls. The Serbian government said it would not penalize Serbs who choose to vote, although Kosovo’s self-proclaimed independence is something that Serbia has said it will never accept.

So far there has not been a single statement from Serb politicians, and this silence is a significant statement in itself, said Ivana Miloradovich, a news editor at the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation in Belgrade.

It is reiteration of the fact that Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as independent state and therefore doesn’t have to comment on any election that Belgrade previously called on to be boycotted,” explained her point Miloradovich.

On the whole, recent polls have shown that people in Kosovo – especially when compared with others living around the Balkans – have suffered a drastic loss of faith in all public institutions from the judiciary to the parliament.

Serbia's Minister for Kosovo, Goran Bogdanovic, told RT that the region's Serbs had no chance of a better life because most candidates in the election are Albanians who are not sympathetic to them:

“Almost all the Albanian lists contain people who, unfortunately, were under trial or participated in criminal actions, or committed crimes in the late 90s against the Serbian community on the territory of Kosovo and Metohija. If we really want to move towards reconciliation of Serbs and Albanians, we cannot count on such people in the future.”

“In conversations with all state officials we emphasize that it’s a black hole. There is crime in the areas of money laundering and human, drugs and arms trafficking. And it’s no secret. All the international organizations working there know about it,” Goran Bogdanovic continued.

The minister also stressed that, although Belgrade will never recognize Kosovo’s independence, Serbia is ready to discuss the issues problematic for both Serbs and Albanians.

“In the current situation Albanians have received all they demanded, but on the other hand, Serbs have lost all they had. It’s absolutely unacceptable,” he concluded.

Marko Gasic from the British-Serbian Alliance for Peace says the major problem for the region is Western-backed Albanian chauvinism.

What Kosovo needs is to be linked, as it should be, to the rest of Serbia, its economic natural hinterland, its source of strength,” he said. “It should not be cut off by Albanian chauvinism that wants it to join Greater Albania, or Greater Albania plus Macedonia.

­Balkan political expert Misha Gavrilovich believes that the situation in Kosovo is a misrepresentation of the word “independence.”

Many Kosovo Albanians will now realize that independence merely means independence from Belgrade, it does not mean what anybody would want in their position – namely, sovereignty over their own territory and the resources on that territory,” he told RT.

Many of those resources are owned by foreign companies; they have been effectively privatized and they’re no longer in the possession of people who live in Kosovo,” he said. “And once this realization happens, many will realize that there might be even more difficult times ahead.”

­Despite RT’s repeated requests, the PDK did not grant us an interview. But once again, they look likely to be tasked with forming a coalition government – and more challengingly – of restoring the trust of Kosovans in their leadership.