A Kosovo voice for peace falls flat

A decade ago, Ibrahim Rugova was Kosovo's hope for independence from Serbia. But his authority has eroded, leaving a lasting political deal for the region up in the air.

When Ibrahim Rugova became leader of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians a decade ago, he was a man of the people - a consensus builder, a peacemaker, and the very emblem of independence.

But Mr. Rugova has become a cloudy figure during this tumultuous year in Kosovo, which began with a Serb crackdown on the region that started in February and forced some 300,000 from their homes. After NATO threatened airstrikes, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to a cease-fire, though violence has still periodically erupted.

Amid this, Rugova is no longer unanimously accepted by the people, no longer synonymous with a liberated Kosovo.

Rugova's transformation - caused by his own miscalculations, suppression from the Serbian regime, and sometimes misleading US policy - is now one of the primary obstacles to finding a political solution for the Serbian province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are a 90 percent majority seeking independence.

Furthermore, diplomats say, Rugova's inability to work with dissenters has contributed to the violence in Kosovo, where nearly 1,000 have died.

"There is no coherent Albanian leadership for negotiations," laments a senior Western diplomat. "If there had been, something could have been achieved that would have been good for the Albanian people."

Currently, US envoy Christopher Hill is trying to forge a lasting political deal for the region by working with Rugova loyalists, leaders in the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and Mr. Milosevic.

RUGOVA was a nondistinct Communist leader and literary critic before he became leader of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. Then, in the late 1980s, Communist Yugoslavia was falling apart. Milosevic, then a rising star in Belgrade politics, blamed Serbia's turmoil on the ethnic Albanians and stripped Kosovo of its autonomy.

While Milosevic consolidated his power in Belgrade, Rugova did the same in Kosovo. In the birth of a euphoric political movement, Rugova united two camps of Albanians: one, the former Communists like himself who had worked within the Yugoslav system; the other, more die-hard Albanian dissidents, many of whom had been political prisoners.

They all agreed to seek independence for Kosovo. The result was the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), a party led by Rugova. Their tactic was passive resistance, hoping the US would back them.

In April 1990, Rugova was invited to America by a group of United States congressmen. "It was an American-style spectacle that we had never seen before," recalls Hajrulla Gorani, a former political prisoner who in early 1990 was the first to break from the LDK. "We took a boat ride to the Statue of Liberty and a helicopter flew above, as if it were needed to protect Rugova.... It cemented the position of Rugova - but it was an illusion."

For many Kosovars the trip was misleading. They thought that because the US supported Rugova, independence was also supported. Although it was not the case - the US never wanted an independent Kosovo - Rugova did not tell them otherwise.

Later in 1990, Mr. Gorani, an advocate of more active resistance to Serbian oppression, broke from Rugova and organized a peaceful one-day worker's strike. Afterward, thousands of Albanians were sacked from their jobs, and the LDK blamed Gorani. Rugova's party became even stronger. In 1992 he was unopposed when he ran for president of a parallel ethnic Albanian government.

But Rugova's passive resistance yielded few results - even while other ethnic groups were winning independence in Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Bosnia. But the people stood by Rugova.

"Rugova's downfall began [in the mid '90s]," says Avni Spahiu, the editor of Bujku, a pro-Rugova newspaper. "He became satisfied with his early achievements, and he stopped convening the parliament."

As Serbian abuses continued and independence remained distant, frustration grew among the ethnic Albanians. The KLA, which wanted to fight for independence, began to take shape. "Every failure of peaceful alternatives stimulated the armed resistance," says Hydajet Hyseni, a former LDK vice president who later helped form a new political party.

Politically, Rugova was unable - or unwilling - to work with the militant-minded opposition. He blamed his internal problems on the Serbs.

In 1996, the US opened the first diplomatic outpost in Kosovo, an information and cultural center that had the effect of debunking the myth that the US supported independence. Rugova was hurt. Later that year, Veton Surroi, an opposition leader, launched Koha Ditore, a daily newspaper critical of the president.

He tried to tighten the screws within the LDK by installing a more loyal core. But the plan did not work.

In the countryside, the popularity of the armed rebels quickly overshadowed Rugova, who neither embraced the KLA, as many Albanians favored, nor condemned them, as the US wanted.

Today, Rugova spends most of his time in his house in Pristina, rarely speaking to the media (through a spokesman he declined to be interviewed for this article) and rarely acknowledging opponents. When earlier this month he toured the countryside of Kosovo at the urging of Mr. Hill, the US envoy, it was his first such visit since he became de facto president.

Though Rugova was well received, his support is not at the expense of the rebels.

"I like Rugova," says Gezim, who is out of work in Orahovac, "but there can be no state without an army."

With a fragile peace installed in Kosovo, the fate of Rugova is very much up in the air.

Can he reunite his people and convince them to settle for international desires of an autonomous Kosovo within Serbia? Or will the ethnic Albanians, clinging to the dream of independence, follow the lead of the KLA?

"The position of Mr. Rugova is very difficult," says Fehmi Agani, a Rugova associate who is part of a negotiations team working on a political settlement. "The first problem is that realizing our goal of independence is a very hard and slow process. On the other side, we have the KLA, which not only wants independence, but is willing to begin a war for it."

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