It is a remarkable turnaround. Until a few months ago, world leaders studiously ignored the self-effacing spokesman of Kosovo's Albanians. While Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and the Bosnians bustled in and out of talks with all the "mediators" in the Yugoslavia conflicts, Ibrahim Rugova and the Kosovo Albanians were left out in the cold. Their grievances were dismissed as peripheral.
As so often seems to happen in the Balkans - as in Bosnia - his cause has attracted attention only when it seems too late to stop the killing, and when his pacifist tactics have tragically passed their sell-by date.
About one-third of Kosovo is now in the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army, whose militants have no time for mild-mannered Mr Rugova. His fierce critic, Adem Demaci, who spent 27 years in Serb jails for Albanian "nationalism", recently called him a traitor for agreeing to talks with Mr Milosevic's government.
"Kosovo's Gandhi", as his admirers call him, was born near the little town of Ostrog in 1944, at the end of the short-lived experiment in a greater Albania, set up by Mussolini and including Kosovo. His father was executed by Tito's Partisans as "an enemy of the Yugoslav state" when they rolled back into Kosovo in 1945, re-attaching the province to Serbia.
A student of Albanian literature in Pristina, he finished his studies in Paris where he perfected his slightly theatrical, bohemian appearance. But academic life back at Pristina University in the 1970s only sharpened his nationalist instincts. Both the university and the Kosovo Writers' Union, to which he belonged, were torn by struggles between Serb and Albanian academics.
When Mr Milosevic abolished Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 Rugova the politician emerged. Making use of the end of one-party Communist rule throughout Yugoslavia, he formed an opposition party to Mr Milosevic's Socialists to rally Albanians against integration with Serbia and oppose Belgrade's apartheid-style policies, which threw most Kosovo Albanians out of their jobs.
Mr Rugova always cut an unlikely figure as a resistance leader with his dandyish dress sense and a voice reduced to a whisper by endless cigarettes. The setting in which he received foreign visitors was no help. His office - all the official buildings were closed to him - was a wooden cabin off Pristina's main boulevard.
Mr Rugova's party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, was powerless to soften the power of the harsh police state in Kosovo. He refused to confront the Serbs with force, as the Croats, Slovenes and Bosnian Muslims had done. He once told me that Mr Tudjman had urged him to set up a "second front" in Kosovo in the Croatian war of 1991. He had refused outright, fearing the Albanians would be massacred while the Croats won their independence.
Instead, they busied themselves setting up a parallel state in Kosovo, financed out of remittances from Albanians living in Switzerland and Germany, running their own schools and hospitals in private homes and holding unofficial, underground elections in 1992 and again this year, which elected him Kosovo's illegal "president".
Rugova's position in Kosovo remained virtually unchallenged in the Albanian community until the Dayton peace deal for Bosnia in November 1995, when Kosovo Albanians again found their grievances ignored. Rugova's pacifist tactics seemed to have got nowhere and he came under attack from militants who were soon to form the armed Kosovo Liberation Army.
He is still popular and, in the opinion of observers, if he were to reach a deal with Serbia, might yet be able to quench Kosovo's descent into mayhem. But with every passing day he becomes less relevant. The irony is that as diplomatic doors finally open to him in Washington, London and Bonn, the prospects of the once adored leader diminish at home.Reuse content