Sunday, January 22, 2006

Ibrahim Rugova

With the loss of Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo loses the one person that at critical times could unite and moderate its otherwise very divided political scene.

Rugova was an elusive but impressive personality. Never really comfortable with the world of politics, he nevertheless emerged as the major political force in Kosovo in modern times.

During the years when Kosovo was ruled by Serbia, it was Ibrahim Rugova that become the symbol for the peaceful struggle of the people of Kosovo for their rights. Always opposed to using violence, he emerged as a strong moral force, and caught the attention of the world.

It was when Milosevic revoked the autonomy of Kosovo that the writer Ibrahim Rugova emerged as the unofficial leader of the province. He founded the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK, refused to take part in the elections of Yugoslavia although the Albanian votes might well have tipped the balance against Milosevic and instead set up an elaborate system of parallel institutions, notably in education.

Whether he could ever have achieved a lasting settlement between Kosovo and Serbia is a question we will never know the answer of. There were certainly attempts from both sides that did not look entirely unpromising at the time.

But eventually a younger, more militant and less patient generation took over and took up arms. When the UCK - the Kosovo Liberation Army - appeared, they did so also in opposition to the policies of Rugova and his political group. We might have forgotten it by now, but there was also what in effect was a savage civil war among the Kosovo Albanians.

What happened during the Kosovo war with him has never been entirely clear to me. He stayed in Prishtina, but then wanted to leave, and Milosevic let him leave with a plane from Belgrade to Rome, although only after a public meeting between the two.

When Serbia had to leave Kosovo, the forces making up the UCK expected to take over completely, and really wanted nothing to do with Rugova.

But they miscalculated. Far from discredited, he returned as the person most respected by the population, and in March 2002 was elected President of Kosovo without much of real competition.

As such, he hovered above and moderated the political scene of the country, although hardly ruling it. He was philosophical rather than practical, moral rather than political.

At times, he seemed more at home collecting his precious stones, and occasionally giving them away to people that he meet and talked to.

I will keep the stones I got from him in memory of a man of morality, dignity and integrity in a time and a region where these qualities were often in desperately short supply.

There is no doubt that Kosovo will be a more difficult place without him.