Jockeying for control of Kosovo

Big postwar players - guerrillas, government in exile - lay claim to

The guerrilla commander stands in the ruins of the house of Adem Jashari, an early member of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

It was here that Serbian special forces began their crackdown on ethnic Albanian fighters in the spring of 1998, killing more than 20 members of the Jashari clan.

"In this room the KLA first met," says Commander Shaban Shala. "From here many heroes have emerged."

In the Balkans, a region with more than its share of myths and martyrs, the newest heroes are KLA fighters. With the withdrawal of Serbian forces and the deployment of KFOR peacekeepers, the disbanded army is riding a wave of euphoria and transforming itself into a political force.

But the KLA is only part of an emerging struggle over who will govern Kosovo. Members of a provincial government in exile also consider themselves the rightful heirs to power. And amid this fray, the United Nations is poised to set up a civilian administration to restore stability.

At the helm of the KLA is Hashim Thaci, a young commander whose nom de guerre is "the Snake." Virtually unknown before the failed peace talks in Rambouillet, France, last spring, Mr. Thaci has risen fast.

Last week President Clinton phoned Thaci to congratulate him on the agreement he had signed pledging demilitarization of the KLA. In the power vacuum following the collapse of the Serbian state structures in Kosovo, Thaci has become the de facto head of the Kosovar government.

A second claim to power

What clouds Thaci's exact status, however, is the existence of a second Kosovar "shadow" government. Run from German exile for the past eight years, the government of Bujar Bukoshi of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) still considers itself legitimate. Yet the LDK leadership is becoming marginalized and internally divided.

"It's easy to forget what our political movement achieved," says Mr. Bukoshi, who last week returned to Kosovo from Germany, where he had practiced medicine. In the 10 years since Serbia lifted Kosovo's autonomy, he says, the LDK's policy of nonviolent resistance helped internationalize the plight of ethnic Albanians.

"For me this power struggle is counterproductive," says Bukoshi, who now lives near the center of Pristina, the Kosovar capital, yet who often seems second in line behind Thaci for meetings and negotiations with KFOR. "As long as my government is not dissolved by the correct procedures, I feel bound to carry out my mandate."

That mandate is getting thinner by the day, as the man who appointed Bukoshi, Kosovar "shadow" president Ibrahim Rugova, frustrates his followers by inexplicably delaying his return to Pristina from exile in Rome. Thaci's government does not recognize Mr. Rugova as president.

Yet some Kosovars do. When Serbia revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, dissolving the provincial government, ethnic Albanians formed an "assembly in exile." That body declared Kosovo a republic, backing the move with a referendum that passed overwhelmingly and ushered in Rugova, an owlish professor of literature, as president in 1992. The only candidate put forward, he was reelected last year.

Why Rugova lost support

Despite that mandate, Rugova's credibility among Kosovar Albanians dropped considerably during NATO air strikes when he appeared on television with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, before leaving the country. In the meantime, the KLA was gaining widespread popular support for its dedicated though futile war against well-equipped Serbian forces.

The government in exile increasingly began to appear aloof and passive in comparison to the guerrillas.

"To me, Rugova is politically dead," says Ajri Begu, a Kosovar Albanian writer and political commentator once active in the LDK. Because of their sacrifices, the ethnic Albanian fighters now have the moral authority to take power, Mr. Begu says. "But the KLA has to change its image from good fighters to good politicians."

One problem for all Kosovar politicians is the lack of access to indigenous media. Ethnic Albanian journalists were kicked out of their jobs at Radio TV Pristina in the early 1990s. And when NATO air strikes began, Albanian-language newspapers were forced to shut down. The Pristina daily, Koha Ditore, started printing out of Macedonia.

Another hat in the ring?

Its editor, Veton Surroi, has appeared as a favorite to play a leading role in Kosovo. Urbane and fluent in English, Mr. Surroi is not aligned with any political party and participated in the Kosovars' Rambouillet delegation as an independent member.

Surroi also remained in Pristina during the worst days of the Serbian rampage.

"I don't see the ambitions of Surroi," says Begu, a close friend. "He has no party behind him. I can't see how he can be elected."

Elections in Kosovo are still a long way off, and in the interim, the UN will run the civil administration here. With the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the world body will help build democratic institutions and organize elections.

Kosovars appear mainly to want a leader to call their own. When NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana visited Pristina last week, a small group of ethnic Albanians gathered in front of the building where he was meeting with various political leaders.

As Thaci emerged from the office, the crowd chanted his name. But when the LDK representative appeared on the same steps a few minutes later, the same people started chanting "Rugova, Rugova" with the same ardor.

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