Jan 26th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Ibrahim Rugova, president of Kosovo, died on January 21st, aged 61
DURING the worst years of the Bosnian war a very strange, almost Ruritanian drama played itself out in another part of the dying Yugoslavia. In 1992 Ibrahim Rugova was elected president of Kosovo.
Once installed, he was driven to work in a black presidential Audi. His office issued daily communiqués about whom he had seen and what he had done. Ordinary people came to pay court and ask favours of the man they increasingly came to regard as the father of the nation.
And it was mostly fantasy. Mr Rugova had been elected president by Kosovo Albanians in a poll conducted in private houses. It was deemed illegal by Serbia, of which Kosovo was, and technically still is, a part. Mr Rugova's office was a wooden bungalow reached by skipping around muddy puddles behind the football stadium in Kosovo's capital, Pristina. No country in the world recognised Mr Rugova's claim to be the president of an independent state, save neighbouring Albania.
But it worked. Any week now talks are due to begin, organised by the United Nations, which are likely to take Kosovo a giant step closer to full independence. Of Kosovo's 2m people, more than 90% are ethnic Albanians.
Those years in the bungalow were strange indeed. While Serbian security forces prowled through Pristina in armoured personnel carriers, Mr Rugova and his colleagues plotted how to make their phantom republic real. They organised a parallel schooling system and health-care network which employed ethnic Albanians who had either been sacked by the oppressive regime of Slobodan Milosevic or had refused to work for the Serbian state any longer. At the same time, Mr Rugova kept in touch with a government-in-exile in Bonn which raised taxes to pay for all this among the Kosovo Albanian diaspora. A few men were sent to train as soldiers in military camps in Albania.
Mr Rugova gathered clever men around him and took a keen interest in his people's welfare. He himself inspired fierce loyalty and devotion. But to meet or interview he was phenomenally dull. His only topic was Kosovo's need for independence. In later years, especially after 2002 when he was formally elected president of Kosovo (since 1999 under UN jurisdiction), he often seemed more excited by his mineral collection than by humdrum daily politics. Visiting diplomats and foreign dignitaries could work out their relative importance to him and to Kosovo by the size of the rock he would give them as a gift.
His patriotism was imbued young. He was barely six weeks old when, in 1945, his father and grandfather were executed by Communist partisans taking over Kosovo. In 1976 he spent a year in Paris studying under Roland Barthes. He returned to Kosovo to become a professor of Albanian literature. From then on, he cultivated a bohemian air. He always wore a silk scarf, except in August. He was partial to drink and a heavy smoker, which may explain his death from lung cancer.
He became head of his party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), almost by accident. When it was formed in 1989 he was despatched to ask Rexhep Qosja, a prominent nationalist writer, to lead it. Mr Qosja refused and, to block anyone worse, the party's founders gave the job to Mr Rugova. “He was a total outsider,” recalled one journalist in the group. “He was a kind of loser who sat in the corner drinking too much coffee.”
Surprised by war
During the 1990s Mr Rugova urged peaceful resistance to Serbian rule. For this he was regarded as the “Gandhi of the Balkans”, especially when its other leaders seemed bent on war. But he was against it only because the Albanians had no arms and, until 1997, no way to get them.
When the Croats fought the Serbs in the early 1990s they tried to lure Mr Rugova into starting an uprising, a second front, which the Croats thought would weaken the Serbs. It might well have done, but Mr Rugova was having none of it. He did not want to give Mr Milosevic an excuse to drive out Kosovo's Albanians. This, of course, was exactly what the Serbian leader tried to do in 1999 during the war begun by the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). This time, though, NATO responded by bombing the Serbs.
The coming of war took Mr Rugova by surprise. He seemed uncertain what to do. Supporters of the KLA charged him with treachery. When the bombing began he was placed under house arrest, forced to appear on television with Mr Milosevic and then sent into exile in Italy.
After the war he was slow to return; he seemed to be yesterday's man. Gradually, however, he realised his own strength. In the wake of the war many of the former KLA leaders appeared thuggish and violent. Members of Mr Rugova's party began to be assassinated and, without doing anything, he found his stock soaring once more. He seemed saintly and untainted with the suspicion of corruption.
In reality he was president only of Kosovo's Albanians and cared little for its other citizens. After the war, when ordinary Serbs and Roma were murdered and driven out by vengeful Albanians, he said nothing to defend them. It would have cost him popularity and, as he knew, the less he said the more popular he became.