Intro: Recent well-publicized splits in the leadership of the Kosovar ethnic Albanians have led to speculation that moderate leader Ibrahim Rugova has lost support among his people. However, RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey finds that Kosovar refugees now in Macedonia still admire him -- and see no contradiction between loyalty to the Rugova and support for the rebel UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) as well.
Cegrane, Macedonia; 20 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Mexhide Rexhepi, a 40-year-old ethnic Albanian woman from Bajnica village (near Kacanik), voted twice in underground elections for ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, whom she refers to with obvious affection simply as "Ibrahim."
Widely endorsed by his fellow Kosovars in two elections that were not recognized by the Serbian government, the moderate Rugova held unchallenged moral and political authority for nearly a decade until the appearance of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), which began using arms to achieve the independence that Rugova's policy of passive resistance had failed to win.
Now Mexhide has heard there is some dissension -- even an open split -- between the UCK and Rugova, and also within the UCK itself. But she and her husband Milaim, now refugees in Cegrane camp in Macedonia, refuse to believe it and vow that "we are all for Rugova."
This is a typical position for the Kosovars who had been determined to remain in their homeland at all costs, and who only fled to Macedonia within the last two weeks.
Some of the early refugees (in early April) had told RFE/RL they no longer supported Rugova. But interviews this week in Cegrane with several dozen refugees -- who were more recently expelled from Kosovo -- reveal unanimous support for Rugova. "We adore him" is a typical phrase the new refugees use when describing their support for Rugova.
Bujan Shavani, a 25-year-old man from Stimle, says he was relieved when Rugova was recently allowed to leave Yugoslavia -- where he had been under house arrest -- and turned up safe in Italy. He says Rugova cannot be held responsible for any of the statements attributed to him while he was being held by Serbian forces.
"We still support him because in the last 10 years Rugova has succeeded in everything he promised, especially the Rambouillet agreement. He had very bad conditions over there, being held prisoner by the Serbs. We still trust him and support him. He is criticized by the others for the statements he made in Belgrade, but that is only propaganda."
Rugova is now travelling throughout Europe soliciting support from Western governments. He has behind him a Kosovo government in exile that was established in Germany in 1991, with Bujar Bukoshi as its self-styled prime minister.
However, Rugova and Bukoshi have more recently been challenged by the commander of the UCK, Hasim Thaci, who has publicly said that Rugova can negotiate and sign agreements on behalf of his own political party, the LDK (Democratic League of Kosovo), but cannot speak for all Kosovars. Following the failure of the Rambouillet and Paris peace talks and the start of NATO air strikes, Thaci announced the formation of a provisional government of the Republic of Kosovo and set himself up as prime minister.
The U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, Christopher Hill, was the chief architect of the Rambouillet accords and knows the various factions of the Kosovo leadership well. He says the U.S. is not taking sides, but working with all the Kosovar leaders.
"I think it's important to stay in touch with all sides, and we are in touch with all sides. But we are not in the business of choosing one side as opposed to another. We want them to work together. This is a critical moment for Kosovo Albanians and I think they would better spend their time trying to work together rather than criticize each other. There will be plenty of time in the future for criticism."
In the Cegrane camp, refugees challenge the perceptions of outside observers that the Kosovars themselves are choosing sides. Typical is Musa Shala, a 34-year-old man from Minosul, who told our correspondent: "We are for Rugova and we will always believe in him to the end. And I love the UCK. There's no contradiction in that."
Enver, a 35-year-old from Ferizaj (who wouldn't give his last name), added that "it doesn't matter who the leader is, only to be free."
Fatmir Saliu, a 33-year-old man who hid out in Kosovo's mountains after the Serbs burned all the houses in his village, is certain the UCK and Rugova can work together to achieve freedom for Kosovo.
"No one really knows what's going on in higher politics, but since the leaders of the UCK and Rugova were together in Rambouillet, they will be again. They are all together."
Ambassador Hill says the U.S. is not judging how much support Rugova still has, but wants the Kosovars to have an opportunity to decide for themselves who their leaders are.
"I'm really not making any assessment of that. We have continued to deal with him. We have also worked with other leaders as well. And I really think it is a matter for elections to resolve who emerges as the leaders in Kosovo. Kosovo needs leadership very clearly ... But ultimately what has to happen is we need to get people back home and they need to vote in free elections."
Many of the refugees in the camps would now like Rugova to visit them -- as he says he will -- to share at least something of their plight. "He must visit," says 22-year-old Besart Mehmeti. "It's best for him to share the good things and the bad things with the Albanian people."
If the refugees who talked to RFE/RL are any indication, Rugova would receive a warm reception in the camps. And one refugee, Ismajl Osmani, told our correspondent that Rugova can look forward to huge support in any eventual free election:
"If we go home to Kosovo and are safe, protected by foreign troops, and if Dr. Rugova is the same as he was before the war, it is sure we will vote for him."