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Yugoslavia: Rugova Returns To Pristina Amid Muted Welcome

Our correspondent in Kosovo looks at the return of Ibrahim Rugova to the province yesterday. He reports that the development highlights a continuing power struggle between Rugova and Kosovo Liberation Army political leader Hashim Thaci.

Pristina, 16 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After weeks of rumor and anticipation, Kosovo Albanian political leader Ibrahim Rugova returned briefly to Pristina yesterday after two months of exile in Italy.

A tanned and relaxed Rugova greeted hundreds of supporters chanting his name as he made his first appearance downtown at the headquarters of the new UN administration.

But despite the effusive cries of these loyalists, the overall public reaction to Rugova's return was surprisingly muted. In Pristina, six weeks after the end of NATO's air campaign, life is returning to a semblance of normality. Most refugees have returned, the cafes have reopened, and few people took time off from their daily routine to welcome their pacifist leader. A couple of hours later, at his house in the hills overlooking the city, Rugova thanked God and NATO for helping make his homeland free. He promised to cooperate with international officials and NATO military forces currently helping to rebuild the province. And he said he was committed to cooperating with all legitimate political forces in Kosovo.

But Rugova indicated he was not prepared to share power with his main rival, Hashim Thaci. Thaci is the young political leader of the militant Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), whose soldiers fought against Serbian forces in the province. He has proclaimed himself head of an UCK-led provisional government. But Rugova stressed yesterday that as far as he is concerned, the international community, under the auspices of NATO and the United Nations, now runs Kosovo and will do so until new elections are held. Rugova, who in the past ten years has been elected president twice by Kosovo Albanians -- albeit in internationally unrecognized elections -- said he would like to see those polls held sooner rather than later.

"Having seen a very important event today, I expect that 'the elections' will be in the months to come."

His aide, Muhamet Hamiti, was even more blunt. He accused Thaci of profiting from Rugova's absence to set up a provisional government stacked against Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Thaci has offered the LDK a third of the seats in the provisional government, in line with an agreement reached among ethnic Albanian representatives at the failed Rambouillet talks last March. Under that deal, a third of the seats in the provisional government were set aside for the UCK, another third for the LDK, with the remaining seats going to another party, the United Democratic Movement, or LBD. But Hamiti called the apportionment provisional, and said Rugova will not be pressured by the UCK. He spoke with reporters yesterday:

"At Rambouillet an agreement only in principal was reached, that the provisional government be formed in Pristina when they got back. And when they got back, the UCK and the LBD formed a government on their own, and they reserved a place for the LDK, but that should have been a consensual agreement on the composition of the government, and that was not the case."

Despite the tough talk, Rugova clearly faces an uphill battle. Many people in Pristina question why it has taken their one-time idol and main political voice so long to return. The fact that he left Kosovo later the same day may also raise questions. LDK officials said he would be back in Pristina again next week.

It appears most Kosovars still respect Rugova for his years of dissent against the Belgrade regime, but the overall credit for ousting the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic goes to NATO and the UCK. Perhaps worse for his political prospects is the fact that Rugova appeared on Serbian state television during the fighting, shaking Milosevic's hand and calling for an end to hostilities. Rugova later said he did so only under duress. But the image remains in the minds of local people, and it engenders little sympathy.

Clearly, Rugova still retains many friends, especially in the international community. And yesterday, they were among the first people he thanked: from Pope John Paul to U.S. President Bill Clinton, to Czech President Vaclav Havel, who was the first foreign leader to visit Kosovo after the withdrawal of Serbian forces. Foreign allies carry weight, especially as it is the international community which now administers Kosovo as a de facto protectorate.

But allies abroad are not a substitute for solid local support. Concerning his lack of a common touch yesterday, Rugova, in suit and tie, did little more than wave briefly to his supporters from a distance. There was no stump speech, no emotional wading into crowds, no words of thanks to those who welcomed him.

Independent politician Blerim Shala runs the respected local weekly Zeri. According to him, western leaders are keen to see both Thaci and Rugova work together, and they are clearly pressuring both men to do so. But as he told RFE/RL yesterday, after meeting with U.S. Balkan envoy Christopher Hill, "The West will back the horse that wins this race, and the race is democracy."

The young Thaci, he notes, has boundless energy, charisma, and is a quick study. In contrast, he says Rugova expects adulation from his supporters as a matter of course, and prefers to meditate alone rather than press the flesh.

Shala notes that both the UCK and the LDK will need to reform if they are to grow into fully functional political parties. The race has already begun. But, said Shala, Rugova still appears frozen at the starting gate.