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Albania: Government Tries To Forge Unity In Kosovo

Berlin, 20 January 1999 RFE/RL) -- Albania's Socialist-led coalition government launched a campaign early this month to bring several rival Kosovar political representatives to the negotiating table in Tirana.

Prime Minister Pandeli Majko hopes the participants in the meeting, scheduled for the second half of January will be able to agree on a joint political strategy for negotiations on the region's future.

The plan appears ambitious, given the deep divisions among the Kosovars. The main gap that Majko will have to bridge is the one separating the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) and the moderate, elected leader of Kosovo's Albanian majority, Ibrahim Rugova, who functions as a shadow-state president. If Majko succeeds, he may also bring Albania's Socialists and opposition Democrats closer together.

Majko met with Democratic Party leader and former President Sali Berisha for the second time on Monday. Majko told reporters "when our brothers are being killed in Kosovo, then we will certainly shake hands with each other". Berisha said he looks forward to further meetings with Majko to find a common language under the principle of 'one nation one stand'.

Paradoxically, the declared political aims of the UCK and Rugova are not substantially different. Both have made clear they want independence from Serbia and will not accept any political status for the region that involves less self-rule than the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, obtained in the Dayton agreement. But the rivalry between the two intensified when the UCK sidelined the pacifist Rugova during the bloody battles with Serbian security forces in 1998. The UCK began to exercise growing influence over the political agenda in the region and undermined Rugova's strategy of peaceful resistance. Guerrilla spokesmen accused the shadow-state president of conducting a policy of "passivism" rather than "pacifism."

Despite the cease-fire mediated by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke in October and the subsequent deployment in the region of verifiers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the UCK has stressed that it will pursue its goal of independence, if necessary by continuing its armed struggle.

It is currently unclear who on the Kosovar side has the real political authority to negotiate any settlement with the Serbs. The UCK has so far remained outside the negotiating process, while its political representative, Adem Demaci, has repeatedly warned that no long-term settlement will be possible without the involvement of the UCK. Furthermore, the UCK has called upon Kosovars living abroad to donate money to, quoting, "our people and its army" and not to "serve the political interests of certain clans and their petty interests." Observers see this as a reference to Rugova's shadow state, which imposes a three percent income tax on all Kosovars to finance the shadow state's health and school systems.

Majko's task is to convince the Kosovars that it is in their interests to find a common language among themselves, one that would enable them to appoint a negotiating team representing the broad majority of Kosovars. But at the same time, his role as a broker is burdened by Albania's official position toward Kosovo, which is in conflict with that of both Rugova and the UCK. Tirana has made clear repeatedly that it would not support the separation of Kosova from Yugoslavia. Instead, it has called for Kosovo to be given the status of a federal republic within federal Yugoslavia, giving it a status equal to that of Serbia and Montenegro. Majko's initiative is thus also aimed at reconciling the position of Tirana with that of the Kosovars. It is to his advantage that he has the broad support of the parliament, including parts of the opposition. Indeed, the legislature's Foreign Relations Committee has urged the government to work toward such a reconciliation. Whether the dialogue that Majko has initiated succeeds or fails will directly affect his domestic political position.

Berisha and his opposition Democratic Party have long given vocal support to the Kosovar cause. The Democrats harshly criticized Majko's Socialist predecessor, Fatos Nano, who tried to take a conciliatory approach toward Yugoslavia in late 1997 by offering regional cooperation. The Democrats charged Nano with treason, arguing that he had abandoned the Kosovars and was negotiating behind their back. Most Kosovars agreed with the Democrats' criticism.

Rugova even declined to visit Tirana after Nano met with Milosevic on Crete in late 1997 and since then he has not known to have traveled to the Albanian capital. Nonetheless, the official position of the previous Democratic Party government toward Kosovo did not significantly differ from that of the Socialists. No Albanian government can economically or politically afford to alienate the international community, which is opposed to independence for Kosovo.

Majko will have not much room for maneuvering, but he has the support of Western envoys, who hope that a unified Kosovar and Albanian position will make negotiations with Belgrade easier. So far he has met in Tirana with Demaci, shadow-state Prime Minister Bujar Bukoshi, and the nationalist academic Rexhep Qosja, who is a prominent leader of Kosovo's United Democratic Movement. All of those politicians have criticized Rugova's approach but expressed their willingness to engage in a discussion.

Majko is now trying to convince Rugova to come to the negotiating table in Tirana. Success will give a big boost to his prestige both in Albania and abroad. But failure will weaken his domestic position and give the opposition an opportunity to push for new elections.

(Fabian Schmidt is a Berlin-based contributor to RFE/RL.)