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Enemies in all directions

March 15, 1998

March 14, 1998, Financial Times (London)

Enemies in all directions: The pacifist policies of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are in danger, says Guy Dinmore:

Imagine you are the leader of a self-declared state recognised by no one and occupied by your enemies. For nearly 10 years, you kept your head down, and hopes of independence alive, by patiently constructing a parallel government on the basis of non-confrontation. Now imagine that you are attacked not just by rivals without, but by militants within, who now fear that non-confrontation is not enough. That is the position of Ibrahim Rugova, the political leader of ethnic Albanians living under Serbian rule in Kosovo province.

Mr Rugova could have had the strongest personal motivation for revenge against the Belgrade regime. He was five weeks old when his father and grandfather were executed by Tito’s communists in 1945. But Mr Rugova has refused to abandon a heartfelt, but what he also sees as pragmatic, commitment to non-violence.

Two weeks into a ruthless crackdown by Serbian police forces that has claimed about 90 lives in central Kosovo, Mr Rugova’s pacifist policies are in danger of being swept away by a flood of ethnic blood-letting. He fears being unable to restrain the thirst for retribution among Albanians who have seen women, children and old men killed, and their homes reduced to rubble in what Belgrade portrays as a clinical operation against “terrorists” of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK).

“The military goal of Serbia is of ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, a kind of blitzkrieg although we make up 90 per cent of the population,” Mr Rugova says in an interview in his cramped office in the provincial capital of Pristina.

Acts of revenge, he warns, would merely give Slobodan Milosevic, the president of rump Yugoslavia, a pretext to widen the offensive.

Mr Rugova, president of the self-declared Republic of Kosovo since Albanians held semi-underground elections in 1992, is under threat from many quarters. The US and European governments, while condemning Serbia’s repressive policies, oppose his goal of independence. The rebel UCK, funded by Kosovan exiles in Europe, has called for a popular uprising. Even within Mr Rugova’s party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), and among a new and increasingly radical generation, there are calls for a more confrontational, though still non-violent, opposition to Serbian rule. Simultaneously (though at the moment silently) there are those who are waiting for the likely failure of talks between Mr Rugova and Belgrade to put forward their own plan for something less than full independence.

A soft-spoken man with a doctorate in semiotics and a passion for literature, Mr Rugova peers over his glasses and laughs gently at his predicament. “There is no damage done by being too reasonable. I am the president and people have the right to criticise. I don’t take it with bad feelings. To be democratic, as the Albanians say, sometimes you have to eat hot stones.”

He defends his policies of building up a parallel government, with its own education, healthcare and taxation systems, while avoiding more overt actions such as mass protests that would invite Serb reprisals. “Our main achievement is that we have avoided open conflict and that Kosovo is still full of Albanians,” he insists.

While there is mounting frustration among Kosovans at the Serb attacks, Mr Rugova is still thought of as the nation’s founding father. This was illustrated last week at a funeral attended by 50,000 mourners for 24 victims of the crackdown. When Luleta Pula-Beqiri, an opposition politician, took the stage and started to lay part of the blame for the deaths at Mr Rugova’s door, the vast crowd began chanting “Rugova, Rugova”.

Hydajet Hyseni, an LDK vice-president who spent eight years as a political prisoner, also urges Mr Rugova to make a more direct challenge to Mr Milosevic. “The policy of extreme pacifism has stimulated a radical reaction [among Kosovans],” Mr Hyseni warns. “If Belgrade persists in imposing an unjust solution I’m sure our policies of non-violence will be more discredited and encourage the radicals even further.”

How to deal with the UCK militants has also split Mr Rugova’s party. While Mr Hyseni and virtually all Albanians see the rebels as defenders of their land, Mr Rugova tries to dodge the issue by saying they do not exist as an organised force. “Frustrated people”, he calls them, and says he repeatedly sent messages urging them not to carry out “acts of individual bravery”.

For the moment there is no one to challenge Mr Rugova outright. He and his party are assured of victory in elections planned for March 22 (but will not be recognised by Belgrade).

His heroes are Martin Luther King and Gandhi. His policy is for the long, long term. As Serbs steadily migrate from Kosovo, driven by poverty and a sense of insecurity to leave the land that was the cradle of their medieval civilisation, it will become harder for Belgrade to justify its 1989 decision to strip the province of its autonomy.

Autonomy alone would not satisfy Mr Rugova, who is committed to full independence. But waiting in the wings are more pragmatic, less popular politicians who might, with US support, negotiate with Belgrade for autonomy. And in the hills of central Kosovo and the mountains along its borders there are still the men with guns.

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