Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Kosovo after Rugova

Jan 23rd 2006

From The Economist Global Agenda

Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo’s president, will be buried on Thursday. Kosovars are mourning their well-known leader just as they prepare for delicate discussions on the future of the United Nations-protected province. UN-backed talks were due to start this week in Vienna, as foreign powers push for Kosovo’s eventual independence. Instead negotiations will follow next month


THE president of the disputed province of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, died of lung cancer on Saturday, January 21st. The 61-year-old chain smoker had put Kosovo on the political map of Europe. With his passing many wonder whether the Balkans are in for a renewed bout of turbulence or even violence. While instability is unlikely, there are difficult days ahead.

Mr Rugova will be remembered as a historic figure who played an important role in Balkan politics and the wars of the 1990s. But to a great extent, his life’s work was done. It was dedicated to leading his people to independence and Kosovo's Albanians are now nearer to that goal than at any time in their history.

When Yugoslavia still existed Kosovo was Serbia’s southern province. Some 90% of its people are ethnic Albanians who have long demanded a fully independent state. In the wake of the Kosovo war of 1998-99 when NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days, the province came under United Nations jurisdiction. More than six years later, formal UN-sponsored talks between Serbian and Kosovar leaders on the future of the province were set to begin in Vienna on Wednesday. They have now been postponed until next month.

Serbia’s leaders say that Kosovo can have “more than autonomy but less than independence.” Kosovo’s Albanian leaders, a fractious lot, all agree that they will settle for nothing less than independence. But over the past few months it has become clear that the major powers who deal with the province - namely Britain, France, America and Russia - have more or less agreed it should move to what is being called “conditional independence”. This is code for full independence after a transitional period and with strong guarantees for Kosovo's beleaguered Serbian minority, believed now to number about 100,000 out of a total population of 2m.

Mr Rugova’s death will not change this. The president, who always sported a silk scarf and used to give visiting dignitaries small rocks from his mineral collection, had already formed a negotiating team for the talks. In theory his death does nothing to change this team, but it could be stronger or much weaker depending who now takes charge.

Where there is room for concern is in Kosovo’s domestic politics and how that affects the team. With 15 days of mourning declared not much is coming out in public about the backroom wheeling and dealing that is going on. Several important posts need to be filled. Kosovo needs a new president (he or she will be elected by the province’s assembly), a new chair of the negotiating team, and – possibly - a new government. Mr Rugova's political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, (LDK) the province’s largest, also needs a boss.

Under pressure

According to Agron Bajrami, the editor of Koha Ditore, the most authoritative Kosovo daily paper, politicians are under intense pressure from the UN and diplomats to move quickly. Any infighting over jobs and positions should be dealt with quickly, they are warned. With the crucial status talks about to start, the politicians know they cannot be too ruthless about fighting for their own interests; those who seem to be preoccupied by their own ambitions may face a backlash from the public.

Nexhat Daci the speaker of parliament has taken over as acting president. He would like to be president in his own right. But that might mean he would chair the status negotiating team (he is already a member of it). That could be bad news, as other members of the team loathe him and his old fashioned demagogic style. Indeed, if it is the case, Veton Surroi, by far and away the most skilled of all of the team will walk out. Of Mr Daci, he says categorically: “I would not work with him”.

The UN and diplomats are working swiftly to see if they can get the parties to agree to separate the posts. (Mr Rugova held both.) Many believe that Mr Daci may already have made a deal to become president and to let Hashim Thaci, the former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas, become prime minister. That could cause problems, especially in Mr Daci's LDK. Mr Surroi says the diplomats are wrong to try and hustle the Kosovars into making decisions quickly; those who argue that stability now is more important than democratic procedures are storing up problems for the future, he adds.

It will be a bitter day in the Balkans when they bury Mr Rugova. The temperature is forecast to fall far below freezing on Thursday. The airport, where foreign dignitaries are expected to arrive, might be forced to close. The main road out of Kosovo is already shut because of a landslide. But if the foreigners get to Kosovo they will be bringing not just messages of condolence. Directly or not, they will be telling local leaders to keep their internal squabbling to a minimum, to make sure there is no violence in the coming months and to put Kosovo's interests above their own, at least until the question of the province's status has been clarified.

So far the omens are not too bad, but a lot of tough talking remains to be done. Mr Rugova did not live to lead his people into the Promised Land, but he brought them pretty close. It seems unlikely that his death will turn back the clock now.

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