PRAGUE, 21 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The death of Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova today comes just shortly before talks on the province's final status are slated to begin. The emerging power vacuum among the Kosovar Albanians only makes an already difficult political situation even more complicated.
Rugova was the virtually unchallenged leader of the Kosovars for the past two decades, and it is difficult to imagine anyone easily filling his shoes.
Rugova himself always appeared convinced that he would survive his long bout with lung cancer to lead Kosovo through its final-status negotiations.
"I am convinced that I will, with the help of God, win this battle so we can proceed together with even more energy toward our goal - recognition of our state Kosovo as an independent state, as soon as possible by our American and European friends. I do expect your support, like always. God bless you, our Kosovo friends, and Kosovo," Rugova told journalists on 5 September, when he announced publicly that he had lung cancer.
One possible candidate could be long-time Kosovar activist Adem Demaci, who is known as "Kosovo's Mandela" for the long years he spent in communist prisons and for his integrity. But he is elderly and has generally shunned active politics.
Certainly, it will not be easy for Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) to find a replacement for the president, because Rugova did not groom a successor. The speaker of the parliament, Nexhat Daci, belongs to the LDK, but it is not clear who will ultimately emerge as the new leader of the faction-ridden party.
Other potential leaders also present difficulties.
Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi belongs to the smaller Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK). He took up that job to replace party founder Ramush Haradinaj after The Hague tribunal indicted Haradinaj for war crimes. Kosumi's behavior in office has been controversial and tainted by charges of corruption, which hardly recommends him for higher office.
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 -- like the indicted Haradinaj has his political base in one of the branches of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). Surroi is well known both at home and abroad, but lacks the sort of large power base that Thaci and Haradinaj have.
No Native Democratic Institutions
In fact, part of Kosovo's leadership problem is that the province has passed from oppressive rule from Belgrade in 1999 to a semi-colonial government by the UN's civilian administration (UNMIK) without having had the opportunity to develop its own democratic structures. Consequently, most important politicians like Thaci or Haradinaj have their power bases rooted not in modern political institutions but in their home regions, their clans, or their old UCK networks -- or a combination of the three.
It might yet be possible for the parties to agree on a neutral figure like a senior university professor to succeed Rugova, but that person is unlikely to have the necessary political authority to lead the status talks. Some commentators have suggested that it might be time to take a different approach entirely and select a young leader untainted by earlier power struggles.
Such a person would also be more representative of one of the youngest populations in Europe.
Troubled Times Ahead
Regardless of how the leadership struggle develops, Kosovo appears headed for troubled times. First of all, the Serbian side in the talks is unlikely to show flexibility in the run-up to the early Serbian parliamentary elections widely expected in 2006. None of the top Belgrade politicians wants to appear to the voters as "weak" on Kosovo, even if in private some of those leaders acknowledge that the province is lost.
Second, some media reports suggest that the major international powers are prepared to impose a status solution in the face of Serbian and Albanian intransigence. According to that scenario, Kosovo would become independent but with international guarantees for the Serbian minority. Since the Serbs and Albanians can agree on very little, the foreigners are likely to have a continuing and sometimes controversial role on the ground.
Even if the Kosovar Albanians get the independence they want, the problems of corruption and poverty will remain. Kosovo's elected institutions are still shaky and untested, but their performance will have to be credible if Kosovo is to get the investments it needs.
This is a problem that has confronted many newly independent countries over the past 60 years, and the only way out is the rocky road of learning by doing.
Spotlight On Kosovo
THE WORLD'S NEWEST NATION? The region of Kosovo has a population of more than 2 million, some 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians. It was one of the poorest regions in the former Yugoslavia, but has considerable mineral wealth and an enterprising population, many of whom work abroad but keep close contact with Kosovo. All ethnic Albanian political parties seek independence on the principles of self-determination and majority rule. They feel that Serbia lost its historically based claim to what was its autonomous province under the 1974 constitution by revoking that autonomy in the late 1980s and then conducting a crackdown in 1999 that forced some 850,000 people to flee their homes.
Since NATO's intervention that year to stop the expulsions, Kosovo has been under a UN administration (UNMIK). The UN has begun to gradually transfer functions to elected Kosovar institutions. The primary Serbian concerns are physical safety for the local Serbian minority, a secure return for the tens of thousands of Serbian displaced persons, and protection for historic Serbian religious buildings. The main problems affecting all Kosovars, however, are economic. Until Kosovo's final status is clarified and new legislation passed and enforced, it will not be able to attract the investment it needs to provide jobs for its population, which is one of the youngest and fastest growing in Europe. Prosperity is widely seen as the key to political stability and interethnic coexistence in Kosovo, as is the case in much of Southeastern Europe.
For an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of developments in the disputed region of KOSOVO, click here.