Politics the KLA way

Divisions between rebel leaders manifest as some leaders split off to form a political party.

Published July 7, 1999 3:57PM (EDT)

Leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army announced the formation of a new political party Monday as the KLA struggled to transform itself from an armed rebel group into a political force at the center of Kosovo's war-ravaged society. The creation of the first political party drawn from the ranks of the KLA's political and military leadership signaled the initial success of the international community in helping to move Kosovo from civil war to postwar normalcy, where political demands are pursued on the floor of Parliament instead of the fields of battle. But the formation of the new political party also came amid signs of jealousies and growing political divisions among the leadership of the KLA in this time of high-stakes reconstruction.

The new political party, the Party of Democratic Union, headed by KLA spokesman Bardhyl Mahmuti, includes some of the key figures associated with 30-year-old KLA political leader Hashim Thaci, but not Thaci himself. Though Thaci, as prime minister of Kosovo's provisional government, is now a political leader supported by the West, it remains unclear just what his failure to lead the new party will mean for the future of Kosovo politics.

Mahmuti served as the KLA's Geneva-based spokesman over the past year of war. His deputy in the new party is Shaban Shalla, a KLA commander from the central Drenica region who became a respected Kosovar human-rights leader as the head of the Council for Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, Kosovo's leading human-rights organization. Other party founders include Jakup Krasniqi, the KLA's graying Kosovo-based spokesman; Rame Buja, a member of the KLA political directorate close to Thaci; Azem Syla, the KLA's minister of defense and also close to Thaci; Jashar Salihu, head of the KLA's finances; and Pleurat Sejdiu, who has represented the KLA from London.

While the formation of the new political party out of the KLA rebel command could be seen as an indicator of the demilitarization and normalization of Kosovar life, it also signaled that factions are forming within the KLA leadership itself. Some KLA leaders appear to be frustrated with Thaci and his inner circle, as well as with Thaci's growing coziness with representatives of the international community. Some figures, such as Sejdiu and Mahmuti, appear to feel that they have been left somewhat on the sidelines of KLA decision-making in the rapidly changing postwar environment. Mahmuti, for instance, did not have a seat among the delegation of Kosovar Albanians sent to the failed Rambouillet peace talks earlier this year.

"There are too many ambitions in the KLA for just one party," said Blerim Shala, 35, editor of Kosovo's leading weekly political magazine, Zeri, and a politically moderate member of the Kosovo transitional government being formed at the urging of the United Nations. "I would say that most of the leaders of this new political party [the Party of Democratic Union] are the most dissatisfied members of the KLA: those who feel they haven't been given enough power and respect."

Both Zeri's Blerim Shala and the KLA's Pleurat Sejdiu, who are about the same age, believe the ambitions and political influence of Kosovo's would-be political leaders will be moderated by the enormous role the international community will have in administering the province as a virtual protectorate over the next several years.

"Whoever will get the support of the West will be the leader of the future," Sejdiu said. "I warned Thaci he could be tossed off by the West" when they are done with him.

Revealing the desire of the KLA leadership to leverage the tremendous power base it has created over the past year of conflict and turn it into political strength, Sejdiu said, "If the West pushes the KLA to disappear, I will start to prepare people to work for the withdrawal of NATO." He suggested that he, among other members of the KLA leadership, would not tolerate KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, making the KLA disband. The KLA command's eagerness for KFOR to help them create a national guard and police force seems to stem in part from the KLA's desire to continue to play a role in postwar Kosovo.

Sejdiu suggested that the KLA is ordering its regional commanders not to entirely decommission its ranks of KLA fighters until the West follows through on agreements to help train the new forces. It seems the KLA leadership fears that when its rank-and-file soldiers return to their former civilian lives as farmers, shopkeepers, etc., the KLA may never get them back, either as soldiers or, necessarily, as voters.

Drawing on a cigarette, Sejdiu added, "Because of KFOR's stalling, the KLA is losing control of Kosova every day."

Sejdiu is a 36-year-old bearded orthopedist from the northeastern Llap region of Kosovo who has been based in London since 1993. In an interview Monday in a downtown Pristina apartment, he said he was frustrated with what he sees as backpedaling by KFOR on commitments made to the rebel group to incorporate thousands of KLA soldiers into an American-style national guard and police force.

"The KLA wants to cooperate with KFOR, but KFOR is hesitating" on commitments made to recruit KLA soldiers into a national guard and police force, he said. "If KFOR doesn't speed up, then Kosovo will be taken over by the mafia."

Sejdiu said the new party, known in Albanian as Partia e Bashkimit Demokratik (PBD), is a coalition made up of KLA regional commanders and political leaders, as well as leaders of an underground Kosovar political party, the Popular Movement of Kosovo (Levizja Popullore e Kosoves, or LPK). The LPK was formed in 1982, modeled on the Irish Republican Army. Sejdiu became leader of an LPK cell in 1991.

The LPK evolved out of a party called the LPRK (Popular Movement for the Republic of Kosova) founded in 1979 as a Marxist-Leninist youth group and supported by the Communist government of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. In 1991, when the Communists fell in Albania, Kosovo's underground LPK movement shed its Marxist associations, but retained its core IRA-type belief that for Kosovo to achieve independence from Serbia it could not rule out violence.

Despite its roots in Marxism-Leninism, "Many people who command the KLA have spent years living in exile in the West," and have no desire to live in a communist system, said Sejdiu.

Hoping to calm Western fears that the KLA wants a "Greater Albania" that would seek to unite Kosovo with Albania and western Macedonia, Sejdiu said: "We know we can't achieve independence for Kosovo right now, or unite all of the Albanian lands. It's not realistic right now."

The KLA's ambivalence toward pursuing its former dream of a Greater Albania has been tempered by the experiences of some 500,000 Kosovo Albanians deported by Serbian forces to Albania over the past three months. Many Kosovo Albanian deportees -- even those who fled massacres and burning villages in Kosovo -- were clearly shocked at the poverty, lawlessness and backwardness of Albania, and it apparently made some of them less optimistic about the prospect of a Greater Albania. "Even under the oppression of the Serbs," Sejdiu said, "we Kosovo Albanians did not self-destruct as much as the Albanians under Hoxha. Even though Kosovo Albanians and Albanians feel like brothers, in reality we have separate political cultures."

By Laura Rozen

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

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