FOCUS: WAR IN EUROPE: Is 'our kind of leader' still the man for them?

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The Independent Online
brahim Rugova is the kind of liberation leader the West loves to do business with: a Sorbonne education, a silk scarf draped around his neck and, most of all, a Gandhi-esque desire for non-violent protest. He is never a problem. Unfortunately, he is also President Slobodan Milosevic's kind of guy: someone who can be safely ignored, whose supporters can be harassed and oppressed without fear of rebellion - at least for a while.

Belgrade spent seven foolish years trampling over Albanian Kosovars' rights, thus ensuring the birth of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The KLA is considered far less palatable - it is routinely described in Western capitals as "shadowy and ruthless" - yet only the armed struggle has pushed the Kosovo issue on to the agendas of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. And by the time of the Rambouillet peace talks in February, it was clear that the initiative rested with the KLA and its political leader, Hashim Thaci.

Mr Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo was represented at the talks, but the provisional "government" formed after the talks was led by Mr Thaci - although Ibrahim Rugova is still called "President".

The West is concerned about competition between Mr Rugova and the KLA, and fears that the rebels will seize political power in the province once it is freed. But some of the rivalry may actually be fed by Western politicians and diplomats wary of doing business with Mr Thaci and the military leaders inside Kosovo. Kosovars, however, will tell you, again and again, that Ibrahim Rugova and the KLA are two sides of the same coin, that until the province is freed from Serbian oppression they stand together, fighting for the same goals in different ways.

"I have talked to so many soldiers and most of these people fighting for Kosovo want Rugova - and that's true for most of the population," says Hamdi Miftari, a journalist for Kosova Sot, a pro-KLA newspaper formerly published in Pristina. But of course, he adds, the war changed things.

"Rugova - the book opens and all of Europe reads it and knows that Kosovars are civilised people, that they don't want war, they don't want to fight anyone. We must appreciate his merits, but the KLA came along and shut the book of Rugova," Mr Miftari continues. "Both have the same aims - they want Kosovo to be free, to be independent. The thing is that they have chosen different roads."

And for the time being the KLA's path is the only option, most Kosovars believe. "In the beginning, Rugova's policy was good: to get people out on the streets and not get them killed," says Enver Doda, another Kosovar journalist forced to become a refugee in Albania. "But after nine years..." His voice trails off.

The KLA certainly has an image problem, perhaps because of the diaspora leaders who raise money and run guns and who seem a world away from those fighting inside Kosovo. It is described as "extremist" as opposed to the "moderate" Mr Rugova. Yet neither his deputy, Fehmi Agani - whose body was found last week in Kosovo after he was taken off a train by Serbian security forces, according to his family - nor Veton Surroi, the independent publisher of Koha Ditore newspaper, both of whom were delegates at Rambouillet, seemed to have many problems working with the KLA. Mr Surroi is said to be in hiding with the guerrillas.

The young men who lead the KLA - Mr Thaci and his university friends - along with the more experienced military commanders, are not warlords and bandits. To some young, educated women in Pristina, for example, they represent the best hope for a more feminist future. Closely tied to the land, their soldiers are the expression of a people's rebellion. Most rebels are based around their own villages, defending (often unsuccessfully) their families and homes from the marauding Serbian military machine. Both the KLA and Mr Rugova derive their power from the people of Kosovo.

As a result, the KLA command structure is still in its infancy and there remains a great deal of confusion about who is actually in charge - not least because the commanders take decisions by consensus. There has been infighting among the rebels inside Kosovo - power struggles rather than shooting matches - but they seem to have overcome these early problems, partly through pressure from the diaspora.

"Rugova never said so, but I believe that he told the KLA, 'You do what you can your way and I will keep doing what I can my way'," says Jehona, a refugee working with an aid agency in Albania who was a friend of Mr Agani's. "I really believe that." And many of her compatriots seem to share that view.