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Yugoslavia: Critical Time For Political Realignment In Kosovo

Among the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians who have returned to Kosovo since the withdrawal of Serbian forces are many vying to lead the province politically. Our correspondent in Kosovo reports on the evolving struggle for power.

Pristina, 13 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The coming weeks are a critical time for the realignment of Kosovo's political leadership. Two self-declared governments now claim to be the representatives of ethnic Albanians in the province. One is dominated by Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). The other is led by Hashim Thaci, the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).

The peacetime transformation of the UCK will be a key factor in the future power base of Thaci's self-declared Provisional Government. For now, that transformation appears to be moving in divergent directions.

There are many political affiliations within the UCK. Some regional commanders support the depoliticization of the UCK. Among them is Anton Cuni, the leader of UCK fighters who were involved in some of the war's most intense battles against Serb forces. Cuni, commander of the 138th Brigade in western Kosovo, told RFE/RL he thinks the UCK should transform itself into a permanent military force rather than another political party.

"It should be expected that the UCK has much more support than any political party at this time. UCK brought the Kosovo question into the international arena. But this doesn't mean that UCK should be involved in Kosovo's politics. Every army in a modern democracy is depoliticized to serve the people. Whatever transformation the UCK makes into a military force, I hope that it will be free of politics."

The growing popularity of the UCK has marginalized Rugova, who is known as the "Gandhi of the Balkans" because of his non-violent resistance to Serb rule. Yet a significant portion of UCK fighters once were members of Rugova's LDK -- particularly those with experience in local political administrations. Rugova needs to build on that former support base in order to survive politically.

"UCK" has been the most popular chant of Kosovar Albanians in recent months. And the real test of Rugova's political future will begin when he returns from Italy, where he flew after being released from house arrest by Yugoslav authorities. He flew to Rome with his family in early May after televised meetings with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and other top Serb officials in Belgrade. Rugova was allowed to leave after calling for an end to NATO airstrikes.

While in exile, he traveled to Macedonia but never to Albania, where the UCK has considerable influence.

Despite pledges to return soon, Rugova has delayed his homecoming for nearly a month. It is widely believed he fears for his safety. The UCK says it is beyond its capability to guarantee Rugova's safety if he returns.

Rugova's appearances on Serbian television with top Serb officials compromised him in the eyes of some ethnic Albanians. He has since said he acted under duress and still retains considerable support. But it appears to be waning the longer he stays away.

Bujar Bukoshi, the prime minister of Rugova's government, did recently return to Kosovo. He had been in exile since the early 1990s.

In the meantime, Thaci has been positioning himself as the man in Kosovo with whom to do business. He met with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last month in Bonn where he was NATO's guest at a summit of the Group of Seven plus Russia. In Kosovo, he has held talks with the British and German foreign ministers. He already has established a government building in Pristina and has set up social-welfare ministries to deal with reconstruction and the resettlement of refugees.

At the Rambouillet Conference in February, it was agreed that a Provisional Government representing all major factions would be established after an international force entered Kosovo. However, after NATO airstrikes began, Thaci formed the Provisional Government unilaterally. Thaci made himself Prime Minister and set aside five cabinet posts for Rugova's party. But Rugova's party has refused to accept the appointments.

A deputy prime minister in the Provisional Government, Mehmet Hajrizi, who had been an LDK member until early last year, told RFE/RL he thinks the LDK is refusing Provisional Government posts because Rugova is not the main decision maker. Hajrizi represents the United Democratic Movement (LBD), a coalition of seven minor political parties. Hajrizi says:

"There are small interest groups inside the LDK that want to preserve a monopoly [on power] for themselves and to control political life in Kosovo. But [the Provisional Government] considers that [such political monopolies] are a thing of the past. I am a Deputy Prime Minister but I have never been a member of the UCK and I am not a member of UCK now. We'd like for there to be not only Albanian parties here but also the Serbs. The Provisional Government has regular meetings and our decisions are made there. I hope I've made it clear that the government is n-o-t only in the hands of Thaci, but of all the cabinet. Of course, naturally, [Thaci] has the role of first violin in the symphony."

A visit to the LDK party headquarters in Pristina this week confirmed that the party is operating in a state of limbo while waiting for Rugova to return from Italy. Most lights in the building were turned off and only a skeleton staff was working. RFE/RLs correspondent interviewed two LDK vice presidents, but neither could offer details about UN-brokered talks on political power sharing that are now underway. LDK vice president Kola Berisha admitted that Rugova's absence is hurting the party at a critical time.

"Naturally, we in the LDK would like for President Rugova to come here as soon as possible. His absence here has a deep impact on the internal organization of our party."

Meanwhile, the divisions between Thaci and Rugova's party are hampering efforts by the United Nations to create a civil administration in Kosovo. During the past two weeks, the UN has brokered talks that include Thaci and Rugova's aides. The talks are aimed at forming a Temporary Council to represent ethnic Albanian parties along with Kosovo Serbs and other minorities.

UN spokesman Kevin Kennedy explained to RFE/RL that the Council will have no executive administrative powers. It will merely advise the UN's civil administration. But in its advisory capacity, the Council is expected to play an important role in establishing the future status of Kosovo.

If the personal and ideological differences between Thaci and Rugova continue to make the formation of a unified political entity impossible, the UN may have to carry out threats to appoint Council members without any agreement between the UCK and the LDK. Such a development would signal that Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders lack the ability to make compromises amongst themselves, much less to administer the multi-ethnic institutions called for by the UN Security Council.