A man with the power to unite

Posted in Europe | 26-Jan-06 | Author: Arben Qirezi| Source: Balkan Insight

Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova is seen in this photo taken Dec. 23, 2005, the last time he was seen in public.
On the eve of the independence for which Ibrahim Rugova fought, Kosovars will have to search hard to find another figure around whom the nation can unite.

The death of the President of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, on 21 January, is a major test for Kosovars as they enter the final stage of the definition of their country's political status. The man who was seen as the founding father of modern Kosovar nationalism, and an extraordinary leader, has died before his dream of Kosovo's independence became true. Now it is for other Kosovar leaders to realize his legacy.

Born in Cerrce, western Kosovo, in 1944, this Sorbonne-educated intellectual belonged to the cultural elite of Pristina that came of age in the late 1960s and which was active throughout the Seventies and Eighties.

During the Eighties, this intellectual elite, consisting mainly of journalists, academics and writers, began to rethink Kosovar society after the long years of President Tito's rule. The rebellion in 1981, with its demand for Kosovo to enjoy republic status within the Yugoslav federation, triggered demands from Belgrade for Kosovo's autonomous status within Yugoslavia to be curbed.

At the forefront of the drive was the Serbian Writer's Association and the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, which launched a political platform for Serbian nationalism based on the alleged suffering of Serbs in Kosovo and the need "to reunite Serbia".

As president of the Kosovo Writer's Association, Rugova opposed this platform. Appearing initially as an intellectual, standing in defence of the rights of his people, rather than as a politician, he openly took on Serbian policy on Kosovo.

Although from today's perspective this might not look deeply significant, it created an aura of leadership around Rugova in Kosovar eyes. At the time, criminal proceedings carrying up to 10-15 years' imprisonment were frequently launched in Kosovo for so-called verbal offences; few others dared speak up against Belgrade's official policies.

With the abolition of Kosovo's autonomy on 23 March 1989, resistance to Serbian rule in Kosovo became more open. Following the break-up of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, a group of intellectuals led by Rugova formed the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, on 23 December 1989. Its formation was the final blow to the regime of the communist puppet leadership of Kosovo led by the ex-police chief and ally of Slobodan Milosevic, Rahman Morina.

Rugova had by then gained prominence with his public defence of the rights of Kosovar Albanians. However, his political position as leader of Kosovo was not yet consolidated. Rugova's appeals to young people to halt the January-February 1990 protests, in which at least 30 unarmed protesters were killed, fell on deaf ears.

The brute force of the Serbian authorities convinced Rugova that the best strategy to defy Serb oppression was a pacifist movement, which would gain international support.

Until July 4 1990, neither the LDK, nor Belgrade had fully consolidated their intended positions. While Pristina was still calling for the return of its status under the 1974 Yugoslav constitution, abrogated a year before, it was increasingly moving towards the demand for an independent republic within a Yugoslav federation. Belgrade still did not completely remove what remained of Kosovo's self-governing structures either.

In response to the break-up of former Yugoslavia, on July 2 1990, the assembly of Kosovo issued a Declaration of Independence, written by some of Rugova's closest associates, including the late president of the Academy and Sciences and Arts of Kosovo, Gazmend Zajmi, and the vice-president of the LDK, the late Fehmi Agani.

This was the turning point in Rugova's career as undisputed leader of Kosovo. His political star rose around the concept of Kosovo's independence and he was seen as the only one who could rally Kosovar Albanian around this new idea.

Rugova's role in shaping Kosovo society was crucial in further developments in the region. Over ten years he homogenized the population of Kosovo around the idea of independence, emancipated Kosovar politics by orienting it towards western values and internationalized the Kosovo issue.

His political and social concepts were inspired by America's founding fathers and the American war for independence and the US combination of social liberalism and traditional values. He was also influenced by the values of the French Revolution.

At that time he would frequently say that although starting an armed conflict would be easy, it would also be counterproductive abroad. "Kosovo needs friends that will support its cause," Rugova said.

Indeed, gaining international support for the Kosovo cause was the key pillar of his strategy. He managed to gain international acknowledgement and was received by many heads of state and government and foreign ministers in the US and Europe. He gave special attention to relations with the US, EU countries and the Vatican, enjoying cordial relations with Pope John Paul II.

Although criticism of his leadership never ceased, his opponents' handicap was that Rugova's principal strategic orientations were fully supported by Kosovars. An ability to foresee processes gave him the aura of a visionary. In an interview for Albanian Television in 1996, for example, he mapped out a future plan that included an international civilian and military presence, the creation of democratic institutions in a transitional period and formal recognition of Kosovo's independence with international guarantees for the Serb minority. To many involved in current developments in Kosovo, this seems like "déjà vu".

Rugova's vision went beyond Kosovo. Following the declaration of the Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo on 9 September 1990, in Kacanik, which was proclaimed secretly by the now disbanded assembly of Kosovo, a Consultative Council of Albanian Political Parties was created with the aim of coordinating political moves during the break-up of former Yugoslavia.

The Council was led by Rugova.

The platform of this council would become the key orientation for the solution of the Albanian question in former Yugoslavia over the next ten years.

The main points were the independence of Kosovo, the status of constituent nation for Albanians in Macedonia, autonomy for Albanians in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia and special status for Albanians in Montenegro.

Through this Council, Rugova briefly assumed political leadership over all Albanians in former Yugoslavia. However this strategy depended on whether Yugoslavia would survive as a state or break up in the subsequent months.

The final break up of the country in 1991-92 forced Albanians to change strategy. Instead of acting as a single body in one state, every Albanian entity within the former Yugoslavia now had to pursue its own agenda.

To create the political ground for independence, the LDK organized a referendum on independence in Kosovo in September 1991, in which more than 80 per cent of Kosovo's eligible voters took part, of whom 99.9 per cent voted in favour.

Kosovo Serbs boycotted the ballot, which was held in secret, with political activists going door-to-door to distribute ballot papers.

In the same year, the Consultative Council of Political Parties in Kosovo accepted Rugova's proposal to create a Kosovo Government in exile under Bujar Bukoshi as Prime Minister.

This government imposed an informal tax of 3 per cent on Albanians in the diaspora and in Kosovo to support their own educational, health and humanitarian projects and the LDK's political activities.

Although the government sat in exile, its financial, educational and health sectors functioned as parallel institutions in Kosovo. Internally, education became the main pillar of this parallel system and from 1991 their Albanian-language schools were widely attended.

As Rugova gave huge importance to foreign relations, representative offices were formed in the main European capitals.

Bukoshi became dissatisfied with his role in decision-making, and in a bid to gain the upper hand openly challenged Rugova's authority. Yet, Rugova did not replace him in his post, although he could have easily done so.

On 24 May 1992, the first elections for a parliament and president of Kosovo were held. Rugova, unchallenged for the top post, won almost 100 per cent of the vote while the LDK won more than 90 per cent of seats in the parliament, which never actually met, however, as Serbian forces prevented this.

This election represented a new era in the Kosovar Albanian movement for independence, as the older consultative bodies were replaced with the so-called parallel institutions, acting on behalf of the Republic of Kosovo.

Rugova gained popular legitimacy and began to act as elected president. While the main backing for this system was the LDK, other parties also evolved. In this way, the Kosovar Albanian political scene began to shape up, with those who supported Rugova and those who opposed him.

To avoid major disunity within the Kosovar camp, Rugova included prominent former political prisoners in the LDK's leadership at the 1994 party convention. This faction coexisted within the LDK until 1998, when they split off to form a new party under Rexhep Qosja, the main critic of Rugova's policies in the Nineties.

Hopes that Kosovo might gain independence through peaceful means faded in 1995 with the approval of the Dayton peace accords, which failed to address Kosovo in the context of the crisis in the former Yugoslavia. Although Rugova continued to enjoy the support of the overwhelming majority of Kosovars, young opponents of pacifist resistance began organizing an insurgent force, the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, mainly in the Drenica Valley of central Kosovo and the Dukagjin region of western Kosovo.

Acting in absolute secrecy, the KLA was known only to those directly engaged in it. Most Kosovars did not even believe in its existence until 28 November 1997, when, during the burial of a teacher killed by Serb police in the village of Llausha, central Kosovo, three KLA leaders publicly proclaimed the KLA platform for an armed uprising.

Fehmi Agami, Rugova's right arm, acknowledged the new reality, stating the next day: "The KLA is now a force without which the Kosovo question cannot be addressed and resolved." This statement would prove true over the next two years, when the KLA evolved into a guerrilla force and took control over developments in Kosovo. An attempt by Richard Holbrooke, the star of Dayon, to start a negotiating process between Pristina and Belgrade in May 1998 failed. Milosevic was determined to deal with the Kosovars once and for all. Instead, Rugova was granted a reception in the White House by the US President, Bill Clinton, on 29 May 1998.

Rugova remained publicly on the side of peaceful resistance to Serb rule throughout the war that followed in 1998-99. In an election organized in March 1998, he was re-elected President of Kosovo. During NATO's air war against Serbia, he shared the fate of the majority of Kosovars and remained at his house in Pristina, though many of his supporters joined the KLA, while continuing to believe in his leadership.

Under a house arrest, and with constant threats against his family, as he explained in his testimony against Milosevic in The Hague in 2002, Rugova was forced to appear in front of the television cameras alongside his biggest enemy. Many saw this as evidence of Rugova's weakness and thought it would end his political career. However, mosst Kosovars viewed Rugova's decision to stay in Kosovo during the bombings as a sign of his peaceful defiance of Serb rule and they saw the TV appearance as an incident he had not desired. This mood was proved in the first free public elections in Kosovo when the LDK won more votes than any other party.

However, from then until the first municipal elections in 2000, which the LDK won with 64 per cent of the votes, Rugova's political position in Kosovo was rather weak. Political and social leadership had shifted to the ranks of the former KLA leaders.

Confirming his undisputed popularity as a leader, Rugova's LDK was repeatedly voted the most popular party in Kosovo in four successive elections, in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004. In spite of the internal splits from which two new parties emerged, Rugova remained unchallengeable as overall leader of Kosovo. The LDK splinter groups never even gained enough support to be represented in the Kosovo assembly.

The announcement of his illness in September 2005 revealed how important Rugova still was in the eyes of supporters and rivals alike. The idea that Kosovo could enter final status talks without him was undesirable for all sides.

Rugova was, in fact, the only figure in Kosovo with the power to unite all factions when necessary. He was not only a leader but a symbol of what everyone wanted Kosovo to become. His death presents a big test for Kosovo's political parties who now have no choice but to rely on his legacy in order to fulfill his dream.

In the meantime, his own party, the LDK, will need to rethink itself in the coming months. The party that championed the struggle for independence under Rugova's leadership will have to find a new agenda that suits the new era into which Kosovo is entering.

Arben Qirezi was spokesperson of the former prime minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj. A former Kosovo contributor and editor of IWPR, he is now principal advisor to the president of the Alliance the Future of Kosovo, AAK.