Ibrahim Rugova - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Ibrahim Rugova

President of Kosovo who embodied his people's struggle for independence from Serbia

As the leader of Kosovo's largest political party, president of the self- proclaimed Republic of Kosovo and the embodiment of his people's struggle for independence, Ibrahim Rugova dominated Kosovar Albanian politics for nearly a decade before his policy of peaceful resistance to Serbia's oppressive rule was swept away by an uprising in 1998. Rugova's pacifist approach, for which he had become known as the "Gandhi of the Balkans", appeared to have become an anachronism in the midst of a brutal crackdown by the Belgrade authorities which turned tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanian families into refugees.

After extolling Rugova's politics of non-violence for years, even Western governments switched to the use of force in March 1999 when Nato launched a campaign of air strikes against Yugoslav targets with the declared purpose of preventing, and then reversing, Belgrade's strategy of ethnic cleansing against Kosovo's Albanian majority.

Rugova's reputation among Kosovar Albanians and their supporters reached its nadir when, in the middle of the bombing campaign, he was shown on Serb state television shaking hands with the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic - whose abolition of Kosovo's autonomy had launched a decade of humiliation and suffering for the province's ethnic Albanians. The fact that Rugova had met Milosevic under duress did not detract from the seemingly devastating impact of this incident on his prestige.

Rugova, who was later allowed to leave Kosovo, then appeared to compound his blunder by showing a reluctance to return home after Nato's victory had forced Belgrade to pull its forces and administration out of Kosovo. Many were inclined to write him off as a political factor in the new Kosovo that was to be run not from Belgrade but by elected local politicians under the overall control of a United Nations Interim Administration Mission (UNMIK).

And yet Rugova confounded friend and foe alike, by restoring within a very short space of time his own personal fortunes and those of his party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Barely six months after the end of the war, opinion polls were showing the LDK well ahead of its rivals, including the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which had earned its popularity as the political successor to the wartime guerrilla group, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Under Rugova's leadership, the LDK won all subsequent parliamentary and nationwide local elections. Rugova himself was formally elected President by the Kosovo parliament in 2002. His success was all the more remarkable because he did relatively little campaigning. Indeed, early on after the war he barely left his home, let alone Pristina, and gave few interviews to the domestic media.

The revival of Rugova's popularity was due largely to his longevity at the top in Kosovar Albanian politics. Since the beginning of the 1990s he had been the symbol of the campaign for independence. During the years of Serbian rule, Kosovar Albanians had repeatedly voted for him as their leader in informal elections.

Although he was not internationally recognised as Kosovo's president in those days, Rugova travelled the world to put the case for Kosovo's Albanians and acted as his people's roving chief ambassador. His appearance - part-academic, with thick-rimmed glasses, part-Bohemian, with a silk scarf almost permanently wrapped around his neck - made the chain-smoking literary scholar and amateur rock collector instantly recognisable to Kosovars.

Such was the aura of authority that surrounded Rugova that, during the war, many supporters of the armed struggle would voice, somewhat incongruously, their backing for the KLA guerrillas in the same breath as their devotion to the pacifist president.

Rugova was born the son of a well-to-do farmer and trader in western Kosovo at the end of 1944. He was barely a month old when his father and paternal grandfather - influential leaders in the local community - were summarily executed by Tito's Communist partisan forces as they were tightening their grip on Yugoslavia.

As a child, Rugova was devoted to his maternal grandfather, a stone-mason and wood-carver, who spent 20 years building a traditional Albanian kulla, or fortified tower, made from marble blocks. Rugova was later to attribute his own patience, perseverance and peaceful disposition to his grandfather's influence.

The young Rugova was an avid reader, and in the early 1970s became one of the first students at the recently opened university of Pristina. In the mid-1970s he studied as a post-graduate student in Paris under the supervision of the French semiologist Roland Barthes. Back in Pristina, he worked for 20 years as a lecturer and then professor at the Institute for Albanological Studies. He published a number of books on literary theory, criticism and history - as well as his own poetry. His output earned him election as chairman of the Kosovo Writers' Union.

Rugova might have remained an academic for the rest of his life but for two momentous changes that affected Kosovo in 1989. The first was the abolition, in all but name, of Kosovo's previously extensive autonomy following the use of some heavy-handed methods by Milosevic, who had taken over as Serbia's leader. By restoring Belgrade's direct rule in response to complaints from Kosovar Serbs of intimidation at the hands of the local Albanian majority, Milosevic effectively discredited Kosovo's ethnic Albanian Communist leadership.

The second came as a result of this: it became possible in Kosovo - as elsewhere in eastern Europe - to form non-Communist political parties, and Kosovar Albanians flocked to the newly established LDK as the embodiment of both their national and democratic aspirations. Within months the party was to claim a membership of 700,000 - an overwhelming majority of Kosovar Albanian adults.

This success had not been foreseen at the time in late December 1989 when two dozen intellectuals met in a Pristina bar to set up the LDK. Nor had Rugova been their first choice for leader. But Rexhep Qosja, a much more prominent nationalist intellectual, declined repeated requests to take the job.

On the crest of the wave of support for the LDK, Rugova then emerged as his community's undisputed leader. It was an inauspicious time for any Kosovar Albanian politician. As part of Milosevic's clamp-down on Kosovo, Albanians were being sacked in their thousands from the civil service, the police, educational institutions and the health service. Scores of Albanians were killed by the security forces when they demonstrated in the streets to demand the restoration of their institutions.

Rugova's response to the challenge was two-fold. He called an end to the strikes and protests, so as to halt the bloodshed. And on a more positive note, he initiated the establishment of "shadow institutions". As part of that process, the Kosovar Albanians held informal elections for a parliament and president of their self-proclaimed, independent Republic of Kosovo. As the sole candidate, Rugova received the overwhelming support of voters to become president in 1992.

Belgrade mostly tolerated these elections and some of the resulting institutions, though within strict limits. As far as Serb officialdom was concerned, Rugova was the leader of a legitimate political party, the LDK, but could have no pretensions to being president.

Rugova was allowed to travel abroad, though he was discouraged from touring Kosovo itself to drum up support. That was not an onerous condition for Rugova - a remote and somewhat shy figure, who shunned crowds. It was not until late 1998 - when fighting was already under way - that he went on his first visit to the provinces to meet his visibly surprised supporters. Even then, he did so under pressure from US diplomats who were anxious for Rugova to try to sell a peace deal to the population.

Apart from political institutions, Kosovo's Albanians also established their own parallel schools system and healthcare network. It was all part of Rugova's tactics of passive resistance which during a visit to London in the mid-1990s he defended in these terms:

The slaughterhouse is not the only form of struggle. There is no mass humiliation in Kosovo. We are organised and are operating as a state. It is easy to take to the streets and to head towards suicide, but wisdom lies in eluding a catastrophe.

However, Rugova's policy of waiting for international pressure on Serbia to bring Kosovo its much-sought independence began to run out of steam in the second half of the 1990s. After US mediation helped put an end to the war in Bosnia with the Dayton peace accords in 1995, the international community seemed to forget about the unresolved problems in Kosovo.

Radicals among the Kosovar Albanians cited Dayton to argue that the West would only get involved in sorting out the Balkans if there was a potentially dangerous conflict that had to be resolved. They blamed Rugova's tactics of non-violence for the failure to make progress on independence.

It was against this background that the KLA began to launch armed attacks against Serb targets, leading to massive retaliation from the security forces and that, in turn, triggering the Kosovar Albanian uprising against Belgrade's rule in 1998. Rugova's policy lay in ruins. Though re-elected president in another unofficial vote in 1998, he was being increasingly sidelined by the radicals.

More humiliation for Rugova was to follow when, at the abortive international peace conference in Rambouillet, near Paris, in early 1999, the Kosovar Albanian delegation picked Hashim Thaci, the KLA's political chief, to lead the negotiating team.

The next few weeks were to prove the most difficult of Rugova's political career. With the start of the Nato bombing on 24 March and uncertainty about the reaction of the nervous Serb authorities, Rugova and his extended family of 17 spent several weeks cooped up in his home in Pristina. A week into this enforced stay, Serb police took up positions at Rugova's home, supposedly for his own protection. He was then driven to Belgrade for his infamous television appearance with Milosevic.

Rugova subsequently claimed that he had no choice in this matter because he had been held a hostage. Whatever the repercussions might have been of saying "no" to the Belgrade encounter, as well as to other meetings with Milosevic's senior officials, Rugova was never the "martyr" type. In that, he was very unlike his long-standing rival, Adem Demaci - the "Kosovar Mandela" - who had already spent 28 years in jail for Albanian nationalism during the Tito era.

Rugova and his family were eventually allowed to leave for Italy, and they stayed there until the end of the war, when he was expected to return to Kosovo to lead the reconstruction effort under the UN's control. But he was reluctant to face the turmoil at home - perhaps also fearing revenge from the KLA guerrillas who had denounced him as a traitor for his wartime conduct - and it took some pressure from Italian politicians before Rugova returned to Kosovo, seven weeks after the end of the conflict.

The rehabilitation of Rugova's reputation was greatly helped by the behaviour of some of the KLA fighters whose determination to establish the KLA as Kosovo's dominant post-war political force involved at times intimidation of the population as well as racketeering activities. Many Kosovar Albanians who had previously viewed the KLA as their protectors now turned against the guerrillas and their political successors.

Rugova and his LDK represented the only alternative. After Milosevic's oppressive rule and then the turbulence of war, people wanted the peace and calm associated with Rugova's approach. And since Rugova had become synonymous with the Kosovar Albanians' aspirations for independence, which now seemed to be within reach, his personal standing helped the LDK win the local elections of 2000 and to emerge as by far the largest party in the parliamentary elections that followed a year later.

Although party political manoeuvring by Rugova's opponents held up his election by MPs as President until early 2002, there could be no doubt that had there been a popular vote - as he would have preferred - Rugova would have won a landslide victory.

As the now internationally recognised President, Rugova had few specific policies to offer, other than insisting on speedy progress towards recognition of Kosovo's independence. He went along with the UN's various demands, such as condemnation of the widespread revenge attacks against Kosovo's Serbs, but showed no more willingness than other Kosovar Albanian politicians in taking the initiative to bring about inter-ethnic reconciliation.

Rugova's critics continued to castigate him for being too passive and hesitant as well as lacking ideas and a sense of urgency in pursuing the standards of democracy, respect for the law and minority protection the UN required before it was prepared to launch talks on Kosovo's long-term status. Kosovo's Albanians wanted that process to get underway because they expected it would lead to independence.

Most Kosovar Albanians, though, remained loyal to Rugova. Even among supporters of rival political parties, he was widely regarded as a national figure who rose above party politics. He cemented that position in 2005 when he stepped down from his post as the LDK's leader - albeit acting, once again, in response to calls from foreign diplomats overseeing Kosovo's UN administration.

There was a further wave of sympathy for Rugova when he announced in September last year that he was suffering from lung cancer, but that he would be leading the Kosovar delegation at the forthcoming talks on Kosovo's status.

In the end, Rugova got close to, but did not see, the fulfilment of his dream of achieving self-determination. His death came just before UN-sponsored negotations had been due to begin with the expectation that the diplomatic process would lead to Kosovo's independence, albeit under some form of international supervision.

Gabriel Partos

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