Serbs struggle for voice in Kosovo election

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ORAHOVAC, Serbia, Nov 14 (Reuters) Small and thin, Slavisa cuts an unlikely rebel. But when he stands for election to Kosovo's parliament this weekend, he'll be defying Serbia's president, prime minister and influential Orthodox Church.

''We can't achieve anything sitting at home, watching TV,'' he says. ''It's a nice idea to boycott, out of spite, but for this community that's simply running away from the problem.'' On Saturday, Serbs in this wine-producing region of western Kosovo will most likely heed a call from the Serbian leadership to boycott parliamentary and local elections in the breakaway southern province.

Slavisa Kolasinac says it's a ''sweet'' gesture of protest, but one that will do nothing to help Serbs be heard above two million ethnic Albanians pushing for independence from Serbia within months.

The 45-year-old is one of very few from Kosovo's 120,000 remaining Serbs standing for election, in the third parliamentary ballot since Serb forces pulled out under NATO bombs in 1999 and the United Nations took control.

Belgrade says Serb votes would give legitimacy to a parliament that is threatening to declare independence after so-far fruitless Serb-Albanian negotiations end in December.

''Are we supposed to force our people to take part in elections and vote for institutions that will tomorrow declare Kosovo independent?'' Serbian Minister for Kosovo Slobodan Samardzic asked last week.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE Slavisa says Kosovo's future status is not his concern. His is to improve conditions, open schools, repair roads for the Serbs of Orahovac, a bitterly poor area where two-thirds of Serb families left with the end of the war.

''As long as we're in the institutions, we have nothing to fear. We can put across our demands,'' he told Reuters. ''The voice of Serbs is needed in Pristina,'' Kosovo's Albanian-dominated capital.

Slavisa, a law graduate who now makes wooden funeral crosses, spoke in cafe Amor, at the top end of Orahovac, where some 160 Serb families live in low, grey houses lining crumbling, cobbled streets.

The rest of the town is Albanian.

Since the war, Serbs in Kosovo have struggled to find their place among Albanians who suffered a decade of repression and a wave of ethnic cleansing in 1998-99 at the hands of Serb forces trying to crush a guerrilla army.

NATO bombed in 1999 to halt the atrocities, and up to 200,000 Serbs and other minorities fled revenge attacks when the United Nations took control and a NATO peace force deployed.

Kosovo Serbs boycotted the last parliamentary election in 2004 and the U.N. authorities accuse Belgrade of intimidating would-be voters this time around, a charge it denies.

Diplomats say the Serbian government is reluctant to see a Kosovo Serb leadership emerge as an alternative to Belgrade.

Kosovo Albanians are confident of recognition by the United States and major European Union powers, after Serbia and Russia blocked their path through the United Nations.

Some Serbs in Orahovac said they respected Slavisa's stand, but few expected to vote on Saturday.

In Mitrovica, moderate Kosovo Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic said they were making a mistake. ''Boycott is a form of protest,'' he told Reuters. ''But it's a short-term protest, while the consequences will be felt long-term.'' REUTERS SKB RK0900

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