With the last Serbian troops now gone from Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army is emerging as the successful liberator of the province, where the government of former Kosovo Albanian president Ibrohim Rugova failed. Hundreds of Kosovar Albanians now walk the streets of Pristina wearing newish KLA uniforms, the way Knicks jerseys show up on the playgrounds of New York. With the prominence of black berets and baseball-style KLA hats, one would think that the KLA had won the war, with mere assistance from NATO. The sign hanging from the highway near the south-central Kosovo city of Ferizai says, "Welcome NATO, and UCK [KLA]."
In its ongoing struggle for legitimacy, the KLA desperately wants to be considered a partner of NATO in liberating Kosovo from Serbian forces and is eager for a role that gives it a decisive part to play in post-war Kosovo.
"The KLA has its political structure which will be transformed. We are working in this direction," said KLA leader Hashim Thaci in an interview with Salon in Pristina Tuesday. "We will respect the rules of democracy and political pluralism. We might integrate with others to create a political culture among Albanians to respect each other."
Thaci downplayed the potential friction between himself and Rugova, although Thaci and his political allies insist that Rugova signed off on an agreement back in Rambouillet, France in February under which Thaci would serve as the interim prime minister of a Kosovar Albanian government until new elections are held. Rugova, who has championed passive resistance to Serbian oppression, now is avoiding any commitment to abide by the agreement.
"We welcome Rugova's arrival. And he won't be any problem for us," Thaci said. "But we ask from him to abandon his boycott [of a KLA-led government] and act responsibly."
It is clear in speaking with Thaci, a handsome, quiet 30-year-old who exudes charisma, that the head of the KLA is a quick study in the effort to transform himself into a political figure whom the West will embrace.
The ragtag Kosovo Albanian separatist rebel army he leads emerged in early 1998 to provoke Serbia's forces into acts of massive retaliation that ultimately led to international intervention. Now, the KLA seems set to become an army of those who might bully Kosovo Albanians and Serbs alike into doing what it wants, from voting for its favored political leaders to abandoning the apartments, businesses, vehicles and power it wants for itself.
Young uniformed KLA soldiers in a white Yugo hatchback overtook and stopped a car of foreign journalists Wednesday in the lonely fields a dozen kilometers from the Kosovo capital, Pristina, and demanded that they rip their license plates, featuring Yugoslavia's white, red, and blue flag, off the car. This, they said, was to make sure they did not provoke the outrage of the Kosovar Albanian villagers whose lives had been destroyed by the Serbian forces who fly the same flag.
The KLA wear a green-and-yellow camouflage military uniform featuring a red-and-yellow arm badge with the letters "UCK," the Albanian abbreviation for the Kosovo Liberation Army. The sense of that encounter was that anyone in such a uniform can do whatever they like, from demanding to see one's passport and documents, to meting out punishments it determines are appropriate, to creating the type of oppressive police checkpoint system that until a few weeks ago the Serb police imposed on Kosovo's Albanian majority. Now under a peace agreement reached between KFOR and Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian police and army have withdrawn. Some 50,000 international peacekeeping troops are being deployed and the 1,000,000 Kosovars displaced by the police are to be allowed to return to their mine-riddled homes and fields.
The incident underscores the fact that the game of diplomacy underway in Kosovo is a delicate one. NATO and the KLA announced a deal Monday that would force Thaci's rebels to keep their hard-won guns out of sight, and eventually to trade their uniforms for civilian clothes. A U.N. civilian administrator in Kosovo, the Brazilian Sergio Viero de Mello, says the American government is courting figures like Thaci while the United Nations is trying to check the KLA's power.
"In less than a year, the KLA has been transformed in the eyes of the West from terrorists to blue-eyed boys, real blue-eyed boys," de Mello said in an interview Tuesday in a Pristina house just across the street from where Thaci and his "provisional government" have set up offices. "Madeleine Albright is in love with Thaci. Jamie Rubin is his best friend. It's not helpful. Thaci's arrived here with the impression that he has the full weight of the American government behind him. He believes he has earned the right to rule.
"In the KLA's eyes, they have proved their legitimacy as an active armed force on the same side as NATO," de Mello added. "But that the KLA is a political force with a real constituency is not yet proven. And there probably won't be elections here before next year. How can we have elections before there is an agreement on what the final endgame for Kosovo will be?" he asked, referring to the fact that the international community has not yet explicitly said whether Kosovo will be allowed to seek full independence from Serbia in a certain time frame.
As one tours the destruction of Kosovo - the ruins of the beautiful old town of the northwestern Kosovo city of Pec, the torched old Turkish-style wooden stalls of the southwestern city of Djakova and the emptied and burned homes and villages of the central Drenica valley -- what stands out are not the fierce, oversized green tanks of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, but the red-and-black eagle flag of the Kosovo Liberation Army hanging from many public buildings. At key posts in most every hamlet and town in Kosovo, the KLA's uniformed soldiers stand guard.
"The Kosovo Albanians are confused," admits Lirak Celaj, a KLA spokesman and former actor from Pristina who has been serving in the northeastern Kosovo "Llap" region. "They don't know the difference between the KLA and Rugova. They used to believe in Rugova very much. He has disappointed them very much, especially in the last months when he met Milosevic in Belgrade. Now they are thinking maybe he is not the guy they wanted to have. The KLA will not become a political party that will enter in elections. But there must be some test" to see who the people support.
But in the villages of Kosovo, signs that the KLA will dominate Kosovo public life in the near future are everywhere: in the red-and-black, double-eagle flags now hanging from the schools, police stations and other buildings where formerly hung the Serbian white, red and blue flag; in the checkpoints and other intrusions they are imposing on the people; and in the uniformed masses of KLA soldiers who have not disappeared with the withdrawal of the threat of Serbian forces.
The tyranny that Kosovo Albanians suffered under the Serbian regime could be recreated under the KLA, which has stepped into the vacuum of destruction left in the wake of the war faster than NATO forces could get here.