Just a week ahead of key talks on the future of Kosovo, the UN-run province is reshuffling its leadership.
Kosovo's provisional assembly meets Friday to replace former prime minister Bajram Kosumi, who resigned last week. The likely successor, former rebel leader Agim Ceku, is popular with the province's ethnic Albanian majority. But Kosovo's minority Serbs and their neighbors in Serbia proper claim that he's a war criminal.
If Mr. Ceku (pronounced CHAY-koo) becomes prime minister, he could revitalize the Albanian side during talks over whether Kosovo will become independent or remain a part of Serbia, say analysts. Though Serb leaders reacted strongly to Ceku's nomination last week, chief mediator Martti Ahtisaari said it shouldn't have "a dramatic effect" on the negotiations.
Serbian negotiating-team member Goran Bogdanovic said last week that Ceku's nomination to the post "shows that the ethnic Albanians have turned away from a possible compromise and toward a radical stand in the Kosovo talks."
Observers here suggest, however, that the ethnic Albanians have other reasons for tapping Ceku. He's seen as a strong leader - someone who can get the ball rolling on the myriad democratic and minority rights standards that the Kosovo government is supposed to be meeting.
He could also fill the power vacuum left by the January death of Kosovo president Ibrahim Rugova, who was seen as a key figure in leading the talks. And he's shown his abilities as head of the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC), a civil agency made up of mostly ex-guerrillas that will probably become the core of Kosovo's Army.
"Kosumi's government has been regarded as ineffective for the last six months, especially in standards, which are the main piece in the jigsaw of final status talks," explains Agron Bajrami, the editor in chief of the Kosovo daily Koha Ditore. "A change in government would at least give a new impetus to the standards implementation program. Ceku has been leading the only standards point that has been successful - the KPC."
A former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrilla leader, Ceku was also an officer in the Yugoslav National Army when the war in Croatia broke out in 1991, and he joined the Croatian Army to fight against rebel Serbs there. He allegedly helped plan Operation Storm, the four-day offensive in 1995 that drove Serbs from Croatia.
Ceku retired from the Croatian Army in the late 1990s and became the KLA's chief of staff in 1999, as the NATO air war against Serbia raged. After the war, he remained in uniform, but helped disband the KLA by ushering the former fighters into the KPC.
But his military history rankles Serbs both here and in Serbia to the north. A Serbian court indicted Ceku in 2002 for war crimes against Serbs during Operation Storm; the same year, another court convicted him in absentia for genocide against Serbs in Kosovo. Such court decisions, however, don't apply in UN-administered Kosovo. Sources here say it's highly unlikely that Ceku will be arrested now - and his background may even work to the Albanians' advantage as talks loom.
"You need a tougher person in the prime minister's position," says Nebi Qena, head of news and current affairs at Radio- Television Kosovo. "Ceku can definitely deliver .... He demilitarized the KLA, oversaw the transformation of the KLA into the KPC, and he steered it through some really difficult times. Ceku has credibility and people have a lot of respect for him."