PRISTINA, Kosovo -- More than two years after air strikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ended the harrowing of Kosovo by Slobodan Milosevic, Kosovo's Serbs remain beset by anxieties. Perhaps half of all Kosovo's Serbs have left for fear of retribution. Hundreds remain missing and unaccounted for. Half of the Serbs still in Kosovo live in small, fortified enclaves where they feel safe only thanks to the presence of NATO troops.
Many Serbs cite these conditions, and the fear of Kosovar independence, as reasons for not voting, on Nov. 17, in the first free general elections Kosovo has ever had. But they are seeing the world upside down. These elections are the great opportunity for them, as they are for us, Kosovo's Albanians.
As the first anniversary of my early release from a Serbian prison approaches - I was convicted of terrorism - I am hoping to become president of Kosovo Province as the candidate of the Democratic Party of Kosovo. As part of this election, I would like to challenge Serbia to a duel: not to see who is quicker on the draw, but to see who will be faster in building democracy.
I believe Kosovars have good reason to feel optimistic about our chances. Since being freed, one of the most heartening things I witnessed in Kosovo was the gracious acceptance of defeat after last year's municipal elections by my party and the Alliance for Kosovo's Future. (The Kosovo Democratic Alliance prevailed.) I heard former fighters say words of which any statesman could be proud: No one lost, Kosovo won.
Many former armed fighters are in my party. They knew they had not prepared well for the elections. Perhaps more important, many had lived in Europe and North America and knew firsthand the beauty of a system in which power is transferred peacefully.
Now the people of Kosovo must redouble their efforts in fashioning a democracy. For Kosovo Albanians, the biggest challenge will be to renewcontact with those we associate with years of suffering - most of all, the Serbs. No measure of Kosovo's maturity will be as important as our ability to ensure that all our people can live in peace and dignity.
No group can do this hard work alone; our Serbian neighbors must summon the courage to meet us halfway. The simplest and most constructive step would be for Kosovo's Serbs, who boycotted the last elections, to participate on Nov. 17.
They have many justified fears. But our fears cannot guide us now; there are too many of them, and they are too common. Everyone in Kosovo knows what it is like to live in fear. Thousands of Kosovo Albanians remain missing, and some 250 are still in Serbian prisons. After 19 months in one of those prisons, I know what it is like to dread tomorrow. I also know that tomorrow comes anyway. The only way forward is forward.
Many of Kosovo's Serbs fear that voting would give the Assembly a legitimacy that the Albanian majority would use to carry Kosovo to independence. No one can know what the future holds, and it is true that many, many Kosovars cherish the desire for independence. Most international observers, and most observers in Belgrade, admit at least in private that Belgrade's authority will never return to Kosovo. A boycott would not change this reality. On the contrary, by appearing intransigent, Serbs may well make it easier for Albanians and the international community to ignore them.
But if Serbs do vote in sufficient numbers, they may well elect the second or third biggest party in the Assembly. The Albanian vote is divided among three major parties; the Serb vote is aggressively sought by just one party. Beyond that, the Serb minority is already guaranteed, by regulation, 10 Assembly seats. If Serbs vote, they could win an unprecedented opportunity to air their grievances and make their arguments, both to other residents of Kosovo and to the international community.
The hard truth is that Kosovo Serbs have just two options: to vote and take a hand in shaping their destiny or to mark their hopelessness by beginning a slow political decline. I hope for Kosovo's sake that they will take the gamble of democracy.
Flora Brovina, a pediatrician and poet, is president of the Albanian Women's League of Kosovo and a candidate for president of Kosovo. Read her words from December 1999, when she was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for ´terrorism´: Trial in Nis
National Albanian American Council