Boston Globe - Jul 12, 1999

For a missing Kosovo leader, luster is lost
by Susan Milligan

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia - The Serbs are gone, NATO is here and hundreds of thousands of traumatized and homeless refugees have returned to their native cities and villages. So where, Kosovars wonder, is their spiritual and political leader, Ibrahim Rugova?

The short answer is that Rugova, long the unofficial president of what Albanians call "Kosova," and a professed Mahatma Gandhi character fighting for Kosovar independence, is in Rome.

The longer answer contains its own, serious questions for the bespectacled, diminutive leader: Why did he not attend funerals for dead soldiers in the Kosovo Liberation Army? Why did he meet with, and even share a handshake with, the hated Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, during the bombing?

And most critically, ethnic Albanians want to know why Rugova isn't here, sharing misery with his fellow Kosovars, giving them leadership at a time when Kosovo is struggling to recover from three months of NATO bombing and the Serbs' rampage.

"I supported Rugova, but not any more. I'm not thinking about Rugova now," Naser Gjuka, a 40-year-old textiles worker said from Pec, in western Kosovo. "He didn't visit us in Albania" at the refugee camps there, "and he even went to Macedonia. Everybody visited us, and Rugova didn't come," Gjuka complained.

That Rugova did not visit Albania, which bore the heaviest refugee burden, astonished refugees and officials. Macedonia, meanwhile, was criticized by aid workers and refugees for its poor treatment of refugees, including keeping them penned within a barbed-wire fence.

Rugova reportedly is planning on coming back to Kosovo this week, but locals aren't holding their breath.

"He's not up to his duties as a leader," said Visar Reka, a spokesman for the Kosovo Liberation Army. "He lost his credibility a long time ago."

The Kosovo Liberation Army has a vested interest in undermining Rugova's credibility. Now that the Serb military forces are gone, the battle for power in Kosovo will be mainly between Rugova's camp, the political party called the Democratic League of Kosovo, and the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla group that sprung up precisely because the Democratic League of Kosovo was making no progress toward independence for Kosovo.

Kosovo is supposed to remain part of Serbia and Yugoslavia for at least three years, when a referendum will determine Kosovo's future. However, there will be earlier elections to form an interim government for Kosovo.

Either camp faces a huge challenge in running Kosovo, whose people have little experience of democratic self-rule. The villages are very clannish societies, with the male head of household making all decisions for the extended family.

Rugova, an intellectual who has been the point man for sympathetic foreign diplomats and interest groups, has a nostalgic, emotional appeal to some Kosovars, who believe he met with Milosevic only under duress, and stays away now because he fears a personal attack, perhaps even from the Kosovo Liberation Army.

But the force, headed by 29-year-old Hashim Thaqi, got a jump on filling the power vacuum created when Serb-installed mayors fled Kosovo after the war ended.

The Kosovo Liberation Army acted quickly and efficiently, taking over such civil functions as aid delivery to refugees and traffic control.

Much of its heavy presence has been curbed by international forces who are trying to hold the force to its agreement to disarm and shed their uniforms.

But in reality, the Kosovo Liberation Army runs much of Kosovo now. In Pec, the former Democratic League mayor, whom Albanians chose in elections not approved by the Serbs, was shocked to find out, after he returned to his home, that an official installed by the Kosovo Liberation Army had replaced him as mayor.

"I returned with the people," and then "I heard on TV and radio" that a new mayor had been named, said Aver Husaj, 40. "They can't select a mayor without a vote. The people chose me."

Rugova, meanwhile, hasn't returned to battle for his position in Kosovo politics. Thaqi threatened to cut Rugova out of the Kosovo interim government if Rugova had not returned by last week, but "I don't think Mr. Thaqi will insist," Reka said. "The door is open."

The public's welcome of Rugova as a leader is in greater question. Rugova, with his quiet manner and ubiquitous ascot scarf, is still supported here by many Albanians, who are disappointed with his recent behavior but love the man himself.

"We think Rugova wanted to end the struggle with peace, without fighting. He is just like Gandhi," said Arif Basha, 55, of Pec.

"We love him no matter where he is in the world," added Fuat Gjuka, 36. "But we didn't like it when he went to Belgrade."

But for others, Rugova may be too late. "It's not good that's he's not with us," said Agim Nashi, 32, of Djakovica. "He needs to lead us. In the future, I don't know what will happen with him."

This story ran on page A08 of the Boston Globe on 07/12/99.