Eclipsed Rugova plays uncertain role in Kosovo

Serbs view politician as bargaining partner

West sees faded visionary

War In Yugoslavia

April 21, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Collaborator or prisoner, desperate politician or passionate peacemaker, ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova remains one of the more compelling yet mysterious players in the Kosovo crisis.

To Yugoslav authorities, the president of the self-styled Republic of Kosovo is a political leader and potential bargaining partner -- the individual with whom they could cut a deal on Kosovo without giving in to NATO demands. To Western allies, Rugova is a captive whose reputation as a nonviolent visionary is being destroyed by Serbian propaganda while he remains under house arrest in Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital.

The Milosevic regime's use of Rugova and his image in the Serbian media provides a glimpse into the murky world of Balkan politics. What is viewed as implausible in the West -- that Rugova could engage in political discussions in such troubled circumstances -- is accepted in Belgrade.

Since NATO unleashed its air war against Yugoslavia, Rugova has appeared three times on Serbian television, although Western officials expressed doubts about the authenticity of the film and argued that Rugova was being coerced.

In halting English, the soft-spoken intellectual-turned-politician squelched rumors that he had been killed. He then reportedly went to Belgrade for meetings with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and a Friday encounter with Serbian President Milan Milutinovic.

Yugoslav authorities have portrayed Rugova as an opponent of the NATO bombing campaign and a proponent of a negotiated settlement in Kosovo, the Serbian province where ethnic Albanians outnumbered Serbs 9-to-1 before the war began.

Some here say the Yugoslav leadership is trying to split the Western alliance by presenting Rugova as the "moderate" face of ethnic Albanians, especially when compared with the younger leaders of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. In the past year, the KLA has moved to the forefront of the ethnic Albanians' cause, and its 28-year-old representative Hashim Thaci has eclipsed Rugova as its leader.

Still, the Serbs are backing Rugova, who created a parallel ethnic Albanian state in Kosovo in 1990 and was twice elected its president. Establishing separate schools, hospitals and civic organizations, Rugova engineered a peaceful bid to counter Serbian political control after Milosevic stripped the province of its autonomy.

"Of course he is a political representative of Kosovar Albanians," Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister, Vuk Draskovic, said yesterday.

"You know Mr. Rugova created a political program for Kosovo," Draskovic said. "For 10 years he didn't use bombs and guns for the implementation of that program."

In the Yugoslav view, Rugova is a dove. Even more important, he's in the country.

"Rugova at this moment is kind of a trump card for Serbian authorities," said Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the Belgrade-based VIP Daily News Report. "Whenever he comes to Belgrade, you can see and hear the statements that we are ready to make a peaceful settlement for Kosovo with Rugova."

Grubacic said there are many reasons why Yugoslav authorities might want to deal with Rugova.

"He has a kind of credibility," Grubacic said. "He is not regarded as the worst among the Albanians. He was somebody for a peaceful solution and a peaceful settlement. He was one of those rare nationalists who wanted to save his nation in a way. Since the clashes started, the whole peaceful strategy of Rugova went into a shadow."

The West views this differently, regarding Rugova as a man under pressure, without physical or political freedom. A recent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel lent weight to that belief.

"He is being held against his will and should be let go with his entire family," said Phil Reeker, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia.

In an interview published yesterday in the Albanian daily Fakti in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, Rugova's top aide, Adnan Merovci, alleged that the leader's meetings with Yugoslav officials were organized for "Serb propaganda purposes." He said Rugova was at his home and in good health. He emphasized that Rugova's political positions were firm and that he would stay in Kosovo.

But does Rugova even matter anymore?

"He was dead meat a year ago," said Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace. "He was very much on the wane. What he's worth now, I don't know. He's a physical coward. He lacks leadership abilities, and he has been displaced by others."

Serwer said the use of Rugova in the Serb-controlled news media shows that the Milosevic regime is trying to "gain the moral high ground with Serbs," while underlining its readiness for a negotiated settlement.

But could Milosevic and Rugova cut a deal on Kosovo that would be acceptable to the West?

"They could sign, but it would be like me writing you a check for $10 million," Serwer said. "You could write it and send it. But what good is it?"

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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