Independence loses its magic in Kosovo vote

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PRISTINA, Serbia, Nov 18 (Reuters) Kosovo Albanians who fought Serbia for independence eight years ago seem disillusioned as their dream nears fulfilment and the reality sinks in that prosperity is going to take years of work.

More than half of them did not bother to vote in an election yesterday, despite the fact that the leaders it was choosing are those who will declare statehood within a month or two.

''The campaign was not about whether or not we will have independence,'' said analyst Dugagjin Gorani. ''It was about the welfare of Kosovo citizens feeling the harsh consequences of bad government and neglect by those in power.'' Record low turnout of less than 45 per cent came as no surprise, Gorani said. ''I was worried it would be under 30, because of people's deep frustration.'' Voter apathy is a sign that independence euphoria is, in one sense, already a spent force. Many now see Kosovo in the hands of political opportunists who cannot make much difference.

''People are depressed,'' said local newspaper editor Berat Buzhala. ''This is about the economic situation. No water, no electricity, no jobs.'' Shops and small businesses with smart facades have burgeoned in the past few years, spilling bright neon onto streets once menaced by sandbagged Serb police checkpoints, where Albanians hurried along, eyes averted in a Balkan version of apartheid.

Now, downtown Mother Teresa Street is being turned into a fine pedestrian walkway, paved with imported Chinese granite and lined with trees, in time for Independence Day.

But litter and puddles still deface most of the capital, Pristina, and its smoke-filled cafes fuelled by the boredom of 60 per cent unemployment are not likely to empty out soon.

''Over the past three years nothing has changed for the benefit of the people. Only certain people in government have gotten richer,'' Buzhala said, echoing a widespread suspicion that some have simply exploited eight years of limbo.

UNDER SUPERVISION Kosovo was always a poor corner of the old Yugoslavia, mired for decades in struggle between a growing Albanian majority and ruling Serbs, who saw the demographic threat to their ancient homeland but could only seem to respond with repression.

Serbia's iron grip was broken in 1999 when the military crackdown it unleashed on Albanian rebels went too far for Western powers, who used their superior NATO force to prevent a bloodbath after months of warnings went unheeded.

The United Nations has administered Kosovo since, its ubiquitous white four-wheelers now a despised emblem of Kosovo's suspended animation between protectorate and independence.

An obsolete coal-fired power station belches smoke into the sky north of the city. Electricity cuts are common, portable generators a must-have household appliance on average salaries of 220 dollars a month.

''Kosovo has no economic potential,'' said Behget Pacolli, a self-made millionaire whose newly created New Kosovo Alliance came third in Saturday's election. ''But we have people who can work, a youth prepared for challenges.'' The election was won by Hashim Thaci and his Democratic Party of ex-guerrillas who claim credit for breaking Serbia's hold in 1999 and feel entitled to lead Kosovo into independence.

But even if Kosovo wins quick Western recognition after a declaration expected to come in the next couple of months, things may get worse before they get better.

Far from coming to terms with the loss of its province, Serbia is bitterly opposed to secession and may try to inflict as much pain as possible, by blockading recognition, trade, borders, power, telephones and whatever else it can influence.

Serbs living in the northern corner of the province will almost certainly reject the new republic, and since they have Serbia at their backs plus full support from Belgrade, there is little Kosovo can do to prevent de facto partition.

So the flag-raising jubilation of independence day will have a sober undercurrent. Kosovo faces a long climb to the level of prosperity of the European Union, whose white four-wheelers will soon replace those of the United Nations.

REUTERS SZ BD1805

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