When Ibrahim Rugova became president of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians in 1992, he promised to seek complete independence from Yugoslavia.
That pledge, reiterated over the years, has proved to be a central obstacle in resolving the Kosovo crisis. "If I had one wish," says a Western observer in the Balkans, "it would be that Rugova would stand up and tell his people that independence is not going to happen."
Mr. Rugova, a prominent writer whose father and grandfather were executed in 1945 by Yugoslavia's Communist regime, won reelection unopposed Sunday. More than 80 percent of the 1.15 million eligible voters cast ballots, according to the ethnic Albanian election commission.
He has said he will continue to work through nonviolent means. But he now appears to be backing off his independence pledge, indicating a willingness to compromise with Serb and international officials, who have said they do not support an independent Kosovo. "We have not ruled out internal solutions" short of independence, says Skender Hyseni, a member of Rugova's Cabinet.
The most feasible solution, observers say, is an autonomous Kosovo within Serbia, much like the arrangement under Tito's 1974 Constitution. That autonomy was stripped away by Slobodan Milosevic in 1989, as he stirred a wave of nationalism that eventually sparked the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.
With violence continuing to simmer in Kosovo, the need to compromise has become urgent. More than 80 people have died in police attacks aimed at the mysterious Kosovo Liberation Army.
Last week, Serbian and Albanian demonstrations throughout the region were marred by outbreaks of violence.
"After these recent attacks and massacres, [armed resistance] will grow more and more," says Adem Demaci, a prominent ethnic Albanian political opponent of Rugova. "The Kosovo Liberation Army now has more fans. They are obliged ... to continue the war."
Nevertheless, both sides seem to be approaching the negotiating table. The Serbs have sent several negotiating teams to Kosovo, but they have not been met by ethnic Albanian officials.
The major sticking point in talks has been Rugova's insistence on having an international mediator present. But Rugova seems to be backing off that.
Both sides indicate talks will begin within weeks. The greatest problem for Rugova may be persuading his people to settle for less than independence.
"It's best to get this settled as soon as possible, before people get more frustrated," the Western observer says. "If normal life resumes, there would be no need for terrorists."