November 19, 2004 - With the October 23 parliamentary elections in Kosovo, the U.N. proclaims that another "key" threshold has been crossed – but the province's status remains unresolved, its majority population stills seeks independence, its legal sovereigns in Belgrade still oppose independence, and 18,000 NATO-led soldiers, including 1,800 from the U.S., maintain a very tenuous peace in the heart of southeastern Europe.
Were these elections really as important as everyone claimed? No. They will change nothing, solve nothing, and are anything but "key" based on the two primary concepts.

Key as in "promoting a solution"? These elections cannot possibly solve any of the problems in Kosovo. They will not make the province more stable, nor will they create jobs, promote an economic turnaround, offer greater security to the remaining Serb minority, or facilitate the return of Serbs who left the province in 1999. In addition, the elections will not reduce the province's dependence on international aid, eliminate organized crime, or offer a viable solution concerning the final status of Kosovo.

Key as in "decisive"? They were not decisive in any significant way. The fact that the same candidates ran once again and received about the same percentages of the votes as they did in previous elections is not the reason. The media magnate and eminence gris of the Kosovo political scene in the 1990s, Veton Surroi, put himself back on the political stage by running, but he gained the support of only six percent of the electorate.

The reality is that these elections did not suddenly bring democracy to Kosovo. Despite the repeated optimism of the Western powers, elections do not make a democracy, even when they are "free and fair." And free and fair is not the same as "multiparty." If anything, the experience of hundreds of elections in the post-Communist world over the past 15 years should have taught us that a stable democratic environment with credible institutions is required to make "free and fair" more than just wishful thinking.

Both the environment and the institutions essential to genuine democracy are lacking in Kosovo. And, with no new players in the game, with no fresh ideas, and with independence an obsessive solo item on the agenda of the Kosovo parliament and President Ibrahim Rugova, what could possibly generate any change, let alone a positive change?

The Serb boycott of the elections did not really matter. The few Serbs left in the province have no significant say in their present or their future. Sadly, they believe themselves to be pawns in a faraway diplomatic game.

The one "key" development in Kosovo is the fact that 2005 has been penciled in as the year in which talks are due to begin regarding the final status of this Serbian province and U.N. protectorate since 1999.

The exact status of Kosovo is unclear, even to the greatest legal experts. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244 implicitly recognizes the right of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia over Kosovo. That country has, in the meantime, been replaced by a union of states called "Serbia and Montenegro," which has a shelf life of three years. It is anybody's guess whether it will survive beyond 2005. If Montenegro exercises its legal right to break away, Serbia's claim on Kosovo will become even weaker.

The decision on Kosovo, once it comes, is likely to be made somewhere between Washington, the U.N. headquarters in New York, Brussels, and possibly Moscow, with Belgrade merely signing on to whatever is offered.

But Serbia's claim on Kosovo is not the main obstacle in the way of independence for the province. The general perception is that, because of the way in which they treated Kosovar Albanians, as well as Bosnians and Croats, in the 1990s, the Serbs have basically lost any legitimate claim to the territory. That perception may be unfair, but it is, nevertheless, a view held by many.

The fear of fallout elsewhere in the Balkans and beyond, even as far away as Chechnya and other regions in the Russian Caucasus, is holding back independence for Kosovo, which many are afraid might cause the already fragile Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to collapse.

But, for those who really know Kosovo, there is yet another fear. The province has been desperately poor, economically unviable without foreign aid, seriously infested with organized crime, and ethnocentric and unstable for longer than anyone would care to remember.

With Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague for the past three years, even most Kosovar Albanians have given up blaming him for all that plagues Kosovo. Following the pogrom on the Serb enclaves in March, the argument that "it is all the Serbs' fault" also became rather lame.

The scapegoats on duty right now are the U.N. Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the lack of independence. The days when the KFOR international peacekeepers were seen as liberators from the Serbian yoke are gone and forgotten. The KFOR troops are increasingly perceived as occupiers and UNMIK as the oppressor.

But, just as free and fair elections do not make a democracy, a decent, stable, and viable state does not make independence. While it is tempting to pretend that the October 23 elections were meaningful and crucial, it would be more realistic to try and find the real key to the real problem called Kosovo – and time is starting to run out.

Nenad Sebek is the Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe, based in Thessaloniki, Greece.