Kosovo's voters went to the polls yesterday to choose a new parliament they hope will lead the province to independence from Serbia.
Polls opened at 600GMT and voters withstood low temperatures to line up outside polling stations in the third parliamentary vote since the province came under UN and NATO control in 1999, after the last in a string of wars that shattered Yugoslavia.
Voters have watched with increasing skepticism as their leaders have failed in two years of plodding negotiations to achieve independence from Serbia. In the meantime, the economy is in shambles, jobs are scarce and power outages are plentiful.
"I'm voting for a safer future, but I'm not expecting miracles," said Dea Mula, an ethnic Albanian student.
"I'd like to see independence declared, although I can't be sure when that might happen," she said.
About 1.5 million people are eligible to elect a new provincial parliament; the party that gets the most seats in the 120-member legislature will form a government and name a prime minister.
Voters also cast their ballots for local councils and municipal mayors.
Two years of negotiations between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders and the Serbian government over the province's status have made little progress. The latest effort is being mediated by representatives from the US, Russia and the EU -- who have a deadline of Dec. 10 to report back to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In a further blow to public confidence, some of Kosovo's leaders recently sought to move back from promises for an immediate declaration of independence if no deal is reached by the deadline. Instead, they said Kosovo would wait until after the mediators' report is delivered before considering when a declaration of independence might be made.
Who becomes prime minister is not likely to greatly influence a decision on a declaration, however, because all of Kosovo's main political parties are represented on the negotiating team.
Veton Surroi, a senior Kosovo negotiator and opposition party leader, said the vote was important because it would show Kosovo's readiness to run its own affairs.
"This is a day in which we demonstrate not only our capability to vote and to build institutions but we do it ... in times when we will also make decisions about our status," Surroi said after casting his vote in the provincial capital, Pristina.
Kosovo's dwindling Serb minority, as in past elections, was expected to boycott the vote, obeying calls from Serbia's leadership to shun the poll.
The province's Serbs have traditionally opted not to take part in elections, complaining of discrimination and a lack of security at the hands of the ethnic Albanian-dominated institutions.
The outcome of the voting is unlikely to influence the talks on Kosovo's future status. All the ethnic Albanian parties share similar views on independence. The two sides will meet in Brussels, Belgium, for another round of talks on Tuesday.
There are concerns, however, over the growing impatience of Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians. Groups of masked and armed men have appeared recently, threatening to fight if the province does not become independent.
During the three-week election campaign, politicians -- realizing worn-out promises of independence would profit them little -- attacked each other over issues such as economic recovery and strengthening rule of law in a notoriously crime-ridden corner of Europe.