By LJubisa POPOVIC
According to still incomplete data from the European mission in Pristina, slightly more than 150,000 Serbs have registered, some 50,000 of them currently in Kosovo and Metohija, while the balance are the "internally displaced". If the claim is made that approximately 150,000 Serbs remained in the province after the departure of the Yugoslav Army and police, while more than 300,000 Serbs left their homes, then it is obvious that the Serbs did not avail or did not wish to avail themselves of the opportunity offered them by the international community. What the consequences of this will be for the future status of Kosovo and Metohija and the possibility of refugee returns remains to be seen but it is obvious that the Kosovo and Metohija Serbs were obviously torn between calls to register and political demands that under no circumstances should they accept anything coming from the international community.
"That was our first missed opportunity to truly show how many of us there are," believes Nedjo Radosavljevic. "The leaders of the Serb opposition were preoccupied with toppling the regime of Slobodan Milosevic at the time, and in Kosovo and Metohija people were still under the impression that our army and police would return soon and that things would go back to the way they were before."
According to the criteria established by OSCE last year, residents of Kosovo and Metohija can be defined as all persons born there since the end of World War II to the present; all persons with at least one parent born there during the same period; and all persons who can prove that they lived continuously in Kosovo and Metohija for five years or more during this period, regardless of where they are now located. This automatically excluded several hundred thousand Albanians from Albania who came to Kosovo and Metohija after June 1999, following the end of NATO operations in Yugoslavia. As far as the right to vote is concerned, there are two additional prerequisites. The first is that voters must be persons 18 years of age or older and the second that they must have been physically present in Kosovo and Metohija in December 1998. Daan Everts, the head of the OSCE mission in Pristina, confirmed that these criteria are still in effect during a special interview with NIN at the beginning of July of this year.
The first confusion among the Serbs was created at the very beginning of this year's registration. In the field, in offices of the Serbian High Commissioner for Refugees and in the OSCE mission in Kosovo and Metohija, only the so-called voter registration was conducted. That is, the registration of persons who have the right to vote. The OSCE mission in Pristina justified this change by the lack of financial and technical means for a general census and the size of the task.
"Obviously at this point the international community wants to hold the elections scheduled for November 17 in Kosovo and Metohija on time," believes Rada Trajkovic, a member of the SNC of Gracanica and a member of the Interim Administrative Council of Kosovo and Metohija. "It's our fault that we did not insist on a general census in a more timely manner."
On the other hand, aside from a few commercials, the Serbian government has done little to explain to Serbs where, how and with what documentation they can prove their Kosovo origin. If this was difficult to do for the Serbs still living in Kosovo and Metohija, at least "internally displaced" persons could have received more assistance. In the last few days significantly more was done so it is understandable that the greatest number of Serbs was registered only during the last two weeks.
The Serbs who responded to the so-called voter registration are now faced with an even more difficult decision. Should they vote in the elections under the patronage of the international community scheduled for November 17 or not? Whatever decision they make, the results will likely be along lines of "damned if you do and damned if you don't".
"The Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija are not in a position to choose what is best for them; instead, they must choose what is least harmful for them," believes Father Sava Janjic. "No matter what they decide, it will be a painful decision. Participation in the elections means acknowledgement of the present situation in which Albanians de facto hold all the power. A failure to participate will lead them into an even more difficult position and who knows whether they will be offered the same opportunity again at a later time."
The UN civil administrator in Kosovo and Metohija, Hans Haekkerup, recently amended the constitutional framework for Kosovo and Metohija with a provision that provides that in the future government of the province, to consist of ten portfolios, one ministerial portfolio is to be reserved for a representative of the Serb community. As far as the current distribution of power is concerned, poor response to the registration will not change anything for right now in the future parliament and government of Kosovo and Metohija. If Serbs participate in the elections, it is realistic to expect that they will win at the local level in the enclaves where they presently live.
Kosovo and Metohija Serbs will not be able to make the decision to participate or not to participate on their own. This time around the Serbs cannot allow themselves the luxury of separating into two or more different echelons. If they vote, it must be as part of a single political group; if they decide to boycott, it must be absolute. The Government of Serbia is aware of this. The activities of the Coordinating Center for Kosovo and Metohija headed by Serbian deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic are already giving tangible results in the unification and articulation of Serbian interests.