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Kosovo: A Crisis Of Leadership?

Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova announced on 5 September in Prishtina that U.S. military doctors have diagnosed him as having "localized lung cancer." Should he lose his fight or choose to leave office, Kosovars will be hard-pressed to find a suitable successor.

Rugova, who was hospitalized at a U.S. base near Heidelberg, Germany, from 27 August to 3 September, said in Prishtina that "with the help of God, I will overcome this battle and continue to work...for the recognition [of the independence of] our country Kosova." He did not indicate that he has considered stepping down. If he resigns or is unable to carry out his duties, parliamentary speaker Nexhat Daci of his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) would carry out the presidential duties.

Symbol Of Resistance

Rugova's announcement confirms what many have long suspected, namely that the president has a serious medical problem that might make it difficult for him to lead Kosovo through the negotiations with the international community, which are expected to start before the end of 2005. Since the late 1980s, he has been the symbol of passive resistance to Serbian rule through the shadow-state he helped build up in response to former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's destruction of the province's autonomy. The Serbian leader's violent crackdown and ethnic-cleansing campaign in 1998-99 discredited pacifism among many Kosovars in favor of the militant resistance led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). But the Sorbonne-educated writer nonetheless remains a father figure to most of his countrymen. In fact, Rugova has been their virtually unchallenged leader for the past two decades, and it is difficult to imagine anyone easily stepping forward to fill his shoes.

Adem Demaci, who is known as "Kosovo's Mandela" for the long years he spent in communist prisons without compromising his principles, is one of the few other people who probably enjoys almost universal respect among Kosovars. Demaci, however, is elderly, has generally shunned active politics, and might not seek or accept the post. He seems to enjoy speaking critically from outside the political establishment and would probably regard public office as a constraint on his political independence. In any event, it would not be easy for the LDK to find a replacement for the president, and Rugova has not groomed a successor. Other prominent government leaders besides Daci include Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi of the smaller Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), who took up that post to replace AAK founder Ramush Haradinaj. Haradinaj cannot hold office because the Hague tribunal has indicted him for war crimes. The main opposition leaders are Hashim Thaci of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and publisher Veton Surroi of the relatively new ORA party. Thaci and Haradinaj have their respective political bases in different branches of the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). Surroi is well known both at home and abroad but lacks the sort of large power base that Rugova, Thaci, and Haradinaj have.

Crucial Period

In fact, part of Kosovo's potential leadership problem at this difficult time on the presumed eve of status talks is that the province has passed from oppressive rule from Belgrade to a semi-colonial government by the UN's civilian administration (UNMIK) without having had time to develop the kind of institutions from which new leaders might emerge, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Consequently, most politicians like Thaci or Haradinaj have their power bases rooted not in institutions but in their home regions, their clans, or their old UCK networks -- or a combination of the three. If Rugova departs the scene, it might be possible for the parties to agree on a neutral figure like a senior university professor to succeed him, but would that person have the necessary political authority to conduct negotiations on Kosovo's final status? Or might it not be time to take a different approach and select a young leader not linked to the power struggles of the 1980s and 1990s? Kosovo has one of the highest birthrates in Europe and consequently a very young population. Some of those people might favor one of their own for Kosovo's leadership, someone like former student leader Albin Kurti, who spent several years in Serbian prisons.

Trouble Ahead?

Regardless of who leads Kosovo in the coming months and years, it appears headed for a prolonged troubled period even if the status question is resolved to the satisfaction of a majority of its citizens -- which, in their view, can only mean independence. First, its elected institutions remain shaky and untested, which is a problem that has confronted many newly independent countries over the past 60 years. The only real solution to the problem, however, seems to be learning by doing. Second, there is virtually no issue on which the 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority and the Serbian minority agree. This is bound to lead to prolonged quarrels or even violence, which Belgrade might be quick to exploit for its own political purposes. Third, UNMIK is widely seen as discredited and having outstayed its welcome, even though KFOR and NATO continue to command the majority's respect. Because UNMIK enjoys so little credibility, any attempt to delay resolving the status issue can only make political tensions worse (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2003, 17 December 2004, and 20 May 2005). Some observers have gone so far as to suggest that if violence breaks out among the ethnic Albanian population again, it might be directed not at the Serbs this time but at UNMIK and perhaps some Kosovar politicians regarded as corrupt.

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