If Serbs and Albanians do indeed sit down and begin to negotiate the future of Kosovo next weekend at the chateau of Rambouillet, it will be deeply satisfying for the 54-year-old Mr Rugova. To be accepted as the embodiment of Kosovar Albanian aspirations by the international community, which once considered him a dangerous idealist, would be the culmination of an ambition; but for this to happen in France would be a dream come true.
Many obstacles still lie in the way of these hopes, however, not least the rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which demands immediate independence from the rump Yugoslavia - in effect, Serbia and the radical nationalists who control it. Last week the KLA called for a new Albanian assembly, which would drastically diminish Mr Rugova's status. He replied sharply in an interview with the Independent on Sunday: "They should start to behave as a serious political force. Given the present situation, it is too much of a luxury for us to be divided.
"The vast majority of [Albanian] groupings are pretty much engaged in the process. Of course there are some who are doing nothing to help" - it was clear he meant the KLA - "but we are working hard to get them to participate more closely and assume responsibility. The Serbian side are trying to convince the world that we are divided, and use that as a pretext to continue their behaviour in Kosovo."
Mr Rugova became the spokesman for the Albanian community, who constitute 90 per cent of Kosovo's population, almost by accident. In 1988 Serbs broke away from the Association of Writers of Kosovo, of which he was president, and the organisation produced an influential statement of Albanian political aims. The following year he was made head of the Democratic League of Kosovo (known by its Albanian initials, the LDK), which has been compared to Solidarity in Poland in the way it operates as a cross between a political party and a mass movement.
Noel Malcolm, author of a history of Kosovo, describes the strategy of Mr Rugova and the LDK as threefold: "To prevent violent revolt; to `internationalise' the problem ... and to deny systematically the legitimacy of Serbian rule, by boycotting elections and censuses and creating at least the outlines of the state apparatus of a Kosovo `Republic'."
The third aim has been surprisingly successful, given the level of Serbian oppression, although in some ways the oppression has helped. The mass sacking of Albanians from government jobs spurred the creation of separate schools, for example, financed by a tax most Albanians are happy to pay, especially those working abroad. Forced into private enterprise, many of the community have prospered more than Serbs who still cling to their state employment.
An unofficial referendum gave overwhelming support to independence; elections, held using private homes as polling stations, have endorsed the LDK equally strongly. Its leader, returned by a landslide last March, is commonly referred to as "President Rugova" by Albanians.
And if Rambouillet happens, the problem of Kosovo will certainly have been well and truly internationalised. The question for Mr Rugova, however, is what has brought this about. The savage reaction of the Serbian security forces to the eruption of armed resistance by the KLA has done more in 10 months to bring the international community into the equation than his years of patient efforts; it has also left his first aim, preventing violence, in ruins.
Yesterday the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was due to tell Mr Rugova and other Albanian leaders that they had a week to put a delegation together for talks. Apart from the KLA challenge to his authority, however, there is likely to be deep disagreement over aims. The advent of the guerrilla movement has sharpened his demands for independence (although he denies it), but some Albanians are impatient with his continual hints that compromises are possible.
"We support an interim accord, with a referendum on independence at the end of three years," he told the Independent on Sunday. "Independence is the optimum solution, and the accord is a means to that end." That does not go down well with those who want to get shot of Serbia as soon as possible.
In the view of these opponents, the older and more middle-class leaders of the LDK tended to rest on their prestige among the Albanian population until the guerrillas appeared on the scene to shake their complacency and demand more vigorous action against Serbia. Mr Rugova also suffered from his close association with Sali Berisha, the disgraced president of Albania who fell from power in 1997.
Many urban intellectuals in Pristina deride Mr Rugova as a man left behind by events. But even they admit that his support remains solid, particularly in the countryside. "They are very feudal in the villages," he loftily declared. He might have been surprised at the acuteness showed by at least one villager. As the intellectual would have predicted, he began by pronouncing: "President Rugova is the number one man in Kosovo. We have him to thank that this killing did not happen earlier.
"On the other hand," he went on, "the KLA has made these talks happen faster. They [Mr Rugova and the guerrillas] have to find a consensus, and I think they will. I support the idea of a referendum after three years if that is what we can get. It will take 10 years for the KLA to get as strong as the Serbs, and I don't want to wait. It's we civilians who suffer most in this fighting."Reuse content