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Serbia’s Albanians boycott elections: ‘It has nothing to do with us’

September 22, 1997

KOLLONIJA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ In the dusty hills of Serbia’s southern Kosovo province, election day was just another day. Wedding party processions slowed the traffic. City people shopped in the market. Villagers tended cows.

And almost no one went to the polls Sunday.

As they have for years, the Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population in this province, boycotted Serb republic elections to protest Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and to continue their push for independence.

``It’s not really a question of boycotting,″ Fehmi Agani, vice-president of Kosovo’s renegade government, said Sunday in the region’s crowded capital of Pristina. ``The Serb parliament is not our parliament. We have our own. This election has nothing to do with us.″

In 1990, Milosevic _ then Serb republic president _ took away Kosovo’s autonomy, disbanding its government, banning its independent media and firing more than 100,000 Albanians from their jobs.

A year later, the Albanians held a clandestine vote, electing a new president and parliament, which nearly all of the 1.8 million Albanians here obey _ even though Milosevic has declared it illegal.

``I don’t want to separate myself from the rest of society. Where the majority is, I am, too,″ said Mehmet Hyseni, a villager who boycotted Sunday’s vote along with all his neighbors.

While most Kosovo people are struggling, with defunct industries and unyielding land, some of the poorest of the poor live in Kollonija, an old miners’ village of 74 families. Most of the men haven’t worked since 1989.

After Milosevic’s crackdown, workers staged a strike by holing themselves up in the mine for nearly two weeks. In response, they lost their jobs. They say they could go back, but only if they acknowledge the Serb mining directors, something they refuse to do.

Unable to find other work, Hyseni says he and his household of seven others _ his wife and some of his children and grandchildren _ live on aid from humanitarian groups. Flour. Cooking oil. Canned food, but only sometimes.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his two-room house, Hyseni wears gray trousers, a gray wool sweater and a black beret. His fingers are stained black from cracking walnuts all morning. His clothes are filthy, but he says they’re the only ones he has.

Despite his dire conditions, he says he can only wait and hope for political change in Kosovo. Voting on Sunday would achieve nothing, as no Serb political party supports autonomy for Kosovo’s Albanians.

``Elections can solve things, but people should have a soul and think about us,″ he said, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening as he squinted. ``We are nowhere, not in sky, not on earth. We have no rights. But we are people like everyone else.″

Down the hill, past a field railroad ties and rusted mine cars, the red-white-and-blue-striped Serb flag flew outside the office of the mine’s board of directors, marking it as a polling spot. The building was empty, except for 10 Serb electoral officials sitting around a table, looking bored.

By 3 p.m., only seven of the 2,075 registered voters in the district had stopped by _ all of them Serbs who now cull the mines for zinc and iron ore.

A husky blond man, designated to speak for the officials because he was the youngest _ 23 _ said he knew the Albanians would never show up.

``In a way, we consider them enemies of this country, because they don’t acknowledge this country,″ he said, refusing to give his name or profession.

Outside, four police paced the otherwise empty street.

Of the 250 legislature seats up for election, 36 are filled from Kosovo. In July, the Serb parliament, dominated by Milosevic’s Socialists, redrew the electoral districts. As a result, the boycott means most of the seats automatically go to the Socialists.

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