Kosova independence leader Ibrahim Rugova dead at 61

From London News, Jan. 22:

Kosovo president Ibrahim Rugova died on Saturday aged 61, after a long fight with lung cancer. Mr Rugova was a key player fighting for peace in the region for more than a decade. He took on the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic and symbolized the struggle by Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians for independence from Serbia.

UN chief Kofi Annan said the deceased “demonstrated true leadership and advocated a peaceful solution for Kosovo”. Mr Annan expressed confidence in the “maturity” of Kosovo’s institutions and urged leaders to remain united in the wake of Mr Rugova’s death. Mr Annan said he discerned “crucial moment” for the province.

But Kosovo Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic said Mr Rugova’s death left “a big gap”, adding he was afraid a struggle among Albanian political parties would soon begin.

French president Jacques Chirac said the man played a “historical role” and showed the “political courage” to defend the democratic rights of the Kosovan people.

Mr Rugova won a majority of votes during elections in late 2001 but only came to power in February the following year after Kosovo’s Albanian parties brokered a belated agreement.

During his presidency, he survived a wave of assassination attempts, including a grenade attack on his home in March 2004 and an attack on his convoy a year later.

The head of parliament, Nexhat Daci, is expected to assume the acting presidency until a new leader is chosen.

Ibrahim Rugova represented one of the few principled voices in the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. Yet his legacy is in many ways one of lost opportunities —largely because his program of nonviolent revolution was betrayed by the “international community” at every turn.

A graduate in linguistics at the Sorbonne in Paris, Rugova was a writer and professor of Albanian literature in his native Kosova when Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic revoked the province’s constitutionally-protected autonomy in 1989, precipitating a wave of strikes and protests. Rugova formed the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), with an initial goal of restoring autonomous rule within a federal Yugoslavia. As Yugoslavia began to fall apart in 1991, it changed to a pro-independence position. However, as Croatia and Bosnia descended into war, Rugova insisted on a course of peaceful struggle. As ethnic Albanians were purged from government and public institutions, the LDK established a virtual parallel government—a network of schools, clinics and civic agencies mostly run out of private homes. In 1992, Kosova’s Albanians organized their own elections, going to the polls in their living rooms to elect a parliament and Rugova as their president. They held back from declaring independence, hoping to first win international recognition for their movement and avoid yet another war.

But when the 1995 US-brokered Dayton Accord—which ended the war in Bosnia and bore Milosevic’s signature—failed to include any provisions for Kosova, many young Albanians gave up on Rugova’s strategy of building a parallel society that could eventually gain international recognition. By 1997, the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) guerilla movement had emerged. As KLA ambushes of police patrols were met with harsh repression by the Serbian security forces—sealing off villages, rounding up and “disappearing” suspected guerilla collaborators—war seemed increasingly inevitable.

Rugova initially accused the KLA of being a creation of the Serbian intelligence services to discredit his nonviolent strategy. But as the guerilla movement swelled, this position became increasingly untenable.

By early 1999, hundreds of Albanian villages had been put to the torch by Serbian police and paramilitary forces, and a quarter of a million Kosovar Albanians (out of a total population of 1.4 million) were displaced. Still, the world offered no recognition of Rugova’s parallel government. In February, Rugova joined with leaders of his KLA rivals to represent the Kosovar Albanians at US-brokered talks in Rambouillet, France. Milosevic (by then president of rump Yugoslavia) rejected the Rambouillet Accords’ demand for NATO troops to police Kosova. The Albanian team rejected terms mandating a three-year interval before Kosova could vote for secession. The Albanian team finally gave in and signed the Accords; Milosevic remained intransigent.

The following month, as NATO began its three-month aerial bombing campaign of Serbia and attacks on Kosova’s Albanians dramatically escalated, Rugova appeared on Serbian television holding hands with Milosevic and appealing for peace. There were rumors that he had been coerced into the appearance, but the KLA still blasted it as treasonous.

The bombing ended in June, when Milosevic acceded to NATO troops for Kosova—but still no provisions were made for the province’s actual independence. Rugova once again closed ranks with the KLA leaders, forming a NATO-backed local administration with them. While his LDK won a majority of seats in the new parliament in 2000, he had to share power with the more hardline parties formed by the KLA leaders. The KLA was ostensibly disbanded, but violent reprisals against Kosovar Serbs were widespread.

Nearly seven years after the military intervention, Kosova remains under NATO occupation, divided into “cleansed” Serb and Albanian zones, still afflicted by periodic outbursts of violence—and little closer to independence. It is a de-facto NATO protectorate under the official soveriegnty of Serbia.

Tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians have filed past Rugova’s hillside villa to pay their respects since his passing. More hypocritically, he has also been hailed as an heroic peacemaker by world leaders. It seems it is nearly always the lot of peacemakers to be hailed posthumously—and betrayed in life.

See also:

“Kosovo Mourns Rugova,” Reuters, Jan. 22, 2006

“Ibrahim Rugova: Pacifist at the Crossroads,” BBC, May 5, 1999

See our last posts on Kosova and the still-simmering Balkan crisis.