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Rugova's death and Kosovo's future

24 January 2006

The death of Kosovo's president Ibrahim Rugova Saturday immediately occasioned equal doses of mourning over the poignant leader's loss and anxiety about the uncertain future of the polity he helped birth.  

Philosophically a Gandhian, Rugova led the Kosovar Albanian civil resistance movement during the 1990s, insisting on the path of nonviolence. (Laura Rozen, who interviewed Rugova during that period, mentions that he was a Sorbonne-educated Shakespeare scholar.) In the face of mounting Serb repression against Kosovo's Albanian majority, Rugova's pacifist tactics were scrapped in favor of the KLA's campaign of armed struggle. Perhaps paradoxically, it was this turn to violence -- and the resulting 1999 intervention by NATO -- that led to Rugova's assumption of power in the newly liberated, UN-administered Kosovo. While the (formally) disarmed forces of the KLA challenged his leadership, Rugova remained the overwhelming choice of the Kosovar Albanian population.

A long shadow of sorrow could be seen on the faces of the Albanians (from both Kosovo and Montenegro) who gather every morning, as do I, at the Montenegrin cafe around the corner from my Chicago home. Rugova's death would have brought sadness whenever it had come, but its timing -- just as final negotations over Kosovo's status were to open -- has all the interested parties worried. Albanians doubt if any successor will possess Rugova's gentle charisma and wonder if, absent such a unifying leader, their quest for full independence will be thwarted; Serbs, on the other hand, fear that Kosovo's next head will be of a more militant and nationalistic stripe, which could spell disaster both for the region's Serbian minority and for any future relationship between Kosovo and Serbia. (See this useful BBC Monitoring piece on the contrasting Albanian and Serbian reactions to Rugova's death.)

Stay tuned to openDemocracy for two forthcoming articles reflecting on Rugova's life and political legacy.

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