Follow the leader

As Kosovo recovers from Serbian-inflicted devastation, rival political factions jockey for position.

By Laura Rozen
July 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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In the midst of critical shortages of livable housing,
water, electricity, food, medical care, telephone lines and passable roads, one
problem Kosovo does not have is a shortage of people vying for power. Kosovo, a
recently Serbian-held province that has no official legal status of statehood, has
not one, but two prime ministers formerly in exile, a president now living in
exile and dozens of people with titles like "foreign minister" and "defense
minister" printed on their business cards.

The thirst for power of Kosovo's would-be rulers does not appear to have been
slaked by the staggering destruction unleashed against the province and its
people by Serbian forces over the past three months.

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As thousands of foreign troops and international officials arrive in Kosovo to
patrol, police, demine, excavate, rebuild and administer the province, a dilemma
is unfolding in the back rooms of the United Nations mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK,
as it is locally known. Just who legitimately represents the 1.8 million Kosovo
Albanians on whose behalf NATO intervened and some 45,000 foreign troops were
deployed? Normally the legitimacy of political leaders is determined by
elections, of course, but no one, not even the organizations that run elections
for a living, seems to have the stomach to even think about elections in Kosovo
for at least a year, while the bodies are still being counted and the rubble is
being cleared.

For the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force, KFOR, there was no question that the
man they needed to deal with is the one who controls the guys with the guns:
Hashim Thaci, the 30-year-old political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army,
who has declared himself prime minister of a Kosovo provisional government that
would rule until elections are held, probably next year.

But Thaci, whose nom de guerre as a top KLA rebel was Snake, is not the only one
running around claiming he's the prime minister of Kosovo. The other Kosovar
prime minister, who recently returned to Kosovo after eight years in exile in
Germany, is Bujar Bukoshi. And while Thaci controls the guys with the guns,
Bukoshi, 51 years old and a physician by training, controls the Dardania bank
account in Albania into which has been deposited the hundreds of millions of
dollars donated by the Kosovo Albanian diaspora, who by tradition give 3 percent
of their income to the homeland.

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"We have something to offer," Bukoshi said in an interview Sunday in his office
above a sports shop in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, referring to his government,
which helped fund parallel health and education systems for Kosovo Albanians
during the past eight years of Serbian repression. "We capped the front for 10
years under hard repression. We succeeded to survive all those years because we
organized democratic institutions."

Bukoshi's painting of himself as a reasonable, civilized alternative to Thaci has
appealed to some in the international community reluctant to deal with a former
KLA rebel who only days ago traded his uniform and Kalashnikov for a business
suit. They might have been persuaded by dirt Bukoshi is suspected of leaking to
the New York Times earlier this week, which alleged Thaci clawed his way to the
top of the KLA leadership by assassinating those in his way, claims many in the
Kosovo Albanian media community dismiss as bunk and political muckraking.

"We're entering the time of dirty politics," said Baton Haxhiu, the editor in
chief of Koha Ditore. "I have reliable information that Bukoshi paid for that
story" that Thaci killed KLA rivals.

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The interim U.N. special representative to Kosovo, Brazilian diplomat Sergio
Vieira de Mello (who's due to be replaced shortly by a permanent U.N.
representative), has spent the past several days troubleshooting the political
minefield of Kosovar Albanian politics. His deputy said Thursday that they are in
final negotiations on the composition of a "transitional council" that is to
serve as Kosovo's provisional government until elections are held.

But Kosovo's squabbling politicians cannot even agree on the formula by which
that council would be formed.

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"We as the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) do not accept de Mello's proposed
formula," said Edita Tahiri, the 43-year-old English-speaking engineer who has
served as foreign advisor to Kosovo's longtime pacifist president, Ibrahim
Rugova, in an interview Thursday. "The situation is very complicated. We support
Thaci as prime minister, but not Thaci's government," said Tahiri.

Rugova, a Tahiri ally, has not returned from exile in Rome with his family,
leading to suspicions that his future in Kosovo politics is in jeopardy. Rugova,
who for 10 years was the clear leader of the Kosovo Albanians, lost respect
among many when he was shown on Serbian television during the NATO airstrikes
meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and calling for the airstrikes to end. Most Kosovar Albanians supported the NATO airstrikes, even
though they led to revenge attacks by Serbian forces that forced almost a million
Kosovo Albanians to flee.

Tahiri complains that Kosovo Albania's leading newspaper, Koha Ditore, and its
publisher, Veton Surroi, refuse to carry her party's message any longer to the
Kosovo Albanian people: "Veton Surroi pretends to be independent. But for weeks
he has carried out an embargo on information from our party. We came to Kosovo
two weeks ago and held a press conference in front of our destroyed offices and
Koha Ditore did not publish anything about the press conference," she said.

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Like Bukoshi, Tahiri contends that Thaci is very close with the socialist
government of Albania, and she says that Albanian television, which Kosovo
Albanians can receive by satellite, is edited by people sympathetic to the Kosovo
Liberation Army, and not Rugova's LDK party.

It is not clear what the squabbling means for the future of Kosovo, which looks
set to be so heavily administered by the international community over the next
few years that Kosovo Albanian leaders may not have all that much influence.
However, getting positions of legitimacy now would guarantee a Kosovo Albanian
politician access and decision-making power over the billions of dollars slated
to be contributed to Kosovo's reconstruction.

For now, the lack of consensus that plagues Kosovo Albanian politics even after
the removal of their chief enemy -- the Serbian forces -- just means more
disfunctionality for the long-suffering Kosovo Albanian population. Little
works in the province that KFOR hasn't fixed: The phone lines are little better
than Dixie cups, running water comes and goes, the trash has not been picked up
in months or years.

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"Pragmatic things, not high politics, are the real challenge now," Bukoshi, one
of the two prime ministers, said Sunday. "I would like to see a democratic,
tolerant Kosovo society respectful of all the rules of civilization. It would be
a pity if the international investment in Kosovo was wasted because they
supported guys who will criminalize Kosovo," Bukoshi said, referring to the Thaci
crowd.

Looking out the second-floor window of his office to a dreary street in Pristina,
Bukoshi says Kosovo's politicians should come together to at least begin picking
up the garbage.


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

MORE FROM Laura Rozen


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