The short, unhappy return of Ibrahim Rugova

Kosovo builds an interim government without its elected president, who is sulking on the sidelines demanding a larger share of power.

Published July 16, 1999 10:30AM (EDT)

Further damaging his credibility with the Kosovar Albanians and the international community, long-time pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova returned to Kosovo Thursday from his wartime exile in Rome, only to sneak out hours later. He never once explained to the people who twice elected him president why he refuses to come back to the province whose independence he has championed.

Resigned to the absence of Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo party (LDK), rival Kosovo Albanian political parties and Kosovo Serbian leaders took his party's boycott of United Nations-sponsored talks Friday in stride. They forged ahead without him, cobbling together a transitional council to represent the Kosovo people to the international administrators that will govern Kosovo under a U.N. mandate.

"If Rugova's LDK continues to obstruct the creation of unity among the other Kosovo Albanian parties, we may be obliged to try to unite with political representatives of the LDK who are ready to work with us," warned Hudajet Huseni, a Kosovo Albanian politician formerly in Rugova's LDK party and now a member of a political party (the United Democratic League, or LBD) allied with the Kosovo Liberation Army. "It is a new reality today. Rugova has got to stop obstructing this process."

Rugova and his allies are refusing to participate in the U.N.-backed transitional council unless they get more seats than the other key political forces in Kosovo, particularly the KLA and the rival LBD party.

That position conflicts with the agreement struck at the failed Rambouillet peace talks in France on Feb. 23. There, Rugova agreed that his LDK party, the KLA, the LBD party and two independent journalists would each get two seats in a provisional government that would govern until elections are held, and that would be led by 30-year-old KLA leader Hashim Thaci as prime minister.

Now Rugova's party is demanding that his LDK party get a third seat, and has boycotted international talks to form a Kosovo provisional government until he gets it.

U.N. administrators in Kosovo increasingly consider Rugova and his close allies a nuisance. "Please, if you have any opportunity, tell [a close Rugova ally] to stop obstructing the formation of the transitional council," one frustrated U.N. advisor told a reporter last week in Pristina. "The U.N. will simply go on without the LDK and Rugova if it keeps up."

"I am sad that the LDK has chosen not to participate in that first meeting,'' said Bernard Kouchner, the former French health minister and founder of Doctors Without Borders charged with leading the massive U.N. mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, at the opening of the meeting Friday which Rugova boycotted. "They are unhappy about the current composition of the council.''

The reason the U.N. has gone to such trouble trying to get Rugova and the LDK on board was evident in the popular reaction to his belated return to Kosovo Thursday. He was greeted by a crowd of some 300 supporters on apartment building balconies and on the streets, throwing flowers and chanting his name.

At the same time, the controversy and sense of betrayal Rugova provokes was also evident, in the editorial headline in the leading Kosovo Albanian newspaper Koha Ditore, which read, "The Loser is Back."

Kosovo Albanians feel profound ambivalence toward Rugova, the man they twice elected to lead their struggle for independence from Serbia. Many feel betrayed by his appearing on Serbian television during the NATO air campaign with Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and calling for the NATO air strikes to end. Rugova's family was being held under house arrest by Serbian forces when he was made to meet with Milosevic, but Kosovo Albanians felt betrayed and humiliated by the footage of their leader broadcast worldwide, at a time when they overwhelmingly supported the NATO air strikes as the only way to escape Belgrade's oppressive rule.

"Rugova talked to Milosevic at the same time that Milosevic was deporting 1 million Albanians from their homes," Baton Haxhiu, editor of the Koha Ditore said Thursday. "Rugova is a good father, and a bad politician. Morally, he made a very good choice. He helped his family. But he was leader the Kosovo Albanians, not just a family, and for that is a political traitor."

The Sorbonne-educated Rugova, a Shakespeare scholar, has added to the feeling of betrayal by delaying his return to Kosovo from Rome until Thursday, and then by staying only for a few hours. In the past month, almost every other Kosovo Albanian leader, including Thaci, and well over 600,000 Kosovo Albanians expelled by Serbian forces, have returned to shattered homes and destroyed livelihoods in the province, while Rugova has remained in Europe, without even issuing a statement explaining his absence.

Even before the NATO air campaign began March 24, Rugova's political power had been steadily eroding over the past year and a half of conflict between Serbian security forces and the Albanian separatist rebel group, the Kosovo Liberation Army. After Serbian forces brutally shelled and killed 53 members of the Adem Jeshari family in the central Drenica region in March 1998, because they suspected Jeshari of being a KLA leader, suddenly tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians who had supported Rugova's pacifist struggle against Serbian rule transferred their loyalties and took up arms with the KLA. Rugova did not even admit the KLA existed until months into the low-intensity conflict, when uniformed KLA soldiers were clearly visible in the hills and villages.

When U.S. envoy Christopher Hill took Rugova for a drive around the country in late 1998 after a short-lived cease-fire was declared, it was Rugova's first visit to the Kosovo countryside in years. Having an American play tour guide in his own country illustrated what many Kosovars already believed: that Rugova was hopelessly out of touch with the people of Kosovo.

But on Thursday Rugova, looking tanned and fit Thursday in a crisp white shirt and tie and business suit, declared that he still considers himself president of Kosovo.

"Yes, I am president," Rugova said, upon his arrival in Pristina, accompanied by Christopher Hill. "I am very happy to be back in a free Kosovo."

But Kosovo Albanian intellectuals, journalists and political rivals said Rugova could no longer consider himself president of the Kosovo people.

"He cannot pretend to be president of the independent republic of Kosovo," said Dukagjin Gorani, a political analyst and an editor of Koha Ditore. "Rugova belongs to the political structures and philosophy of the past and which ended four months ago, even since NATO began to bomb. The entire political philosophy in Kosovo has changed. Perhaps at some point Rugova can involve himself in reconstructing" his political party, the LDK.

No doubt the feeling of betrayal would not be so strong had Rugova not been so cherished and adored by his people. The Pristina crowds cheering his return this week made clear that many ordinary people still look to him as a hero.

And while the stock of the KLA has soared in his absence, in Kosovo villages it was common to hear Kosovo Albanians chanting "UCK, UCK!" (the Albanian acronym for the KLA) and then "Rugova, Rugova!" and "NATO, NATO!" -- seeing no contradiction in supporting all of their liberators.

"The Albanians are confused," admitted Lirak Celaj, the KLA rebel spokesman for the northeastern Llap region, in an interview. "They used to believe very much in Rugova. And now they are very disappointed in him. Nevertheless, some people don't know the difference between the KLA and Rugova."

In an interview earlier this month, KLA leader and provisional Kosovo prime minister Thaci made clear that Rugova could not be ruled out as a formidable political rival. "We welcome Rugova's arrival," Thaci said, from a hotel the KLA used as a base in the hills not far from Rugova's home in the Vellanija neighborhood of Pristina. "And he won't be a problem for us. But we ask for him to abandon his boycott of the (KLA) and to act responsibly."

By Laura Rozen

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

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