Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Racing Home

Kosovo's rival Albanian leaders are scurrying back to Pristina, each hoping to be viewed as the people's undisputed chief.

As Western troops vied with the Russian Army to be the first international forces to enter Kosovo, another race - lower profile yet ultimately likely to be more significant - was taking place among rival Albanian leaders.

Divided and dispersed across Europe, the various Kosovo Albanian leaders have effectively been bystanders in the events which have led to the Serb withdrawal from, and UN deployment in, Kosovo. Now, however, they are racing back to Kosovo, each hoping to be the first to reach "liberated" Pristina and to be viewed as his people's undisputed chief. Various proposals for forging a unified front have fallen by the wayside.

The two most well-known rival leaders Ibrahim Rugova of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and Hashim Thaci of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) were both abroad, in Italy and Austria respectively, as NATO troops entered the province's capital. Now both are returning to Kosovo.

Rugova, the 54-year-old self-proclaimed president of Kosovo and long-time undisputed Kosovo Albanian leader, is expected to travel to Macedonia this week, from where he will make his way back to Pristina with the assistance of NATO troops. His 29-year-old rival, Thaci, is expected to arrive earlier, flanked by KLA troops who have already moved into Pristina.

Animosity between the generation of Albanian leaders who led the passive resistance to Serb rule in Kosovo for the best part of a decade from 1989, when the province's autonomy was forcefully stripped, and the younger generation of fighters has been a feature of Kosovo Albanian politics since the outbreak of fighting in the province at the end of February last year.

Rugova has refused to recognise the KLA-dominated provisional government which Thaci, the prime minister designate, formed in April, since it has not been elected. By contrast, Rugova feels that he and the LDK have a democratic mandate based on two sets of underground elections, the latest in March 1998.

Rugova and his associates have therefore continued to behave as if they are the Kosovo's legitimate government. Bujar Bukoshi, Rugova's ally and long Kosovo's prime minister-in-exile, remains in Germany, overseeing the funds collected during the past ten years from Kosovo Albanians abroad and shuttling between European capitals as an official envoy.

The KLA, meantime, says that the provisional government derives its authority from the agreement signed in Rambouillet by Thaci, Rugova and Rexhep Qosja, chairman of the Democratic Union League, for the creation of a new government that would be headed by Thaci. In forming the provisional government, Thaci left one ministry open for an LDK member. However, he and the KLA have refused to recognise Rugova as Kosovo president.

According to a representative of the provisional government: "The bottom line is that the KLA continued to resist the Serbs while many LDK representatives either fled to the West or neighbouring Macedonia and Albania." They further charge Rugova with collaboration for meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the same time as Serbian forces were committing the greatest atrocities against Kosovo's Albanians.

In an attempt to heal the rift in Kosovo Albanian politics and bring the various factions together, the Albanian government in Tirana, the KLA and the Macedonian Albanian leadership in Tetovo proposed the creation of an Albanian Security Council three weeks ago.

The council was to have been comprised of the various Kosovo Albanian political leaders and prominent Kosovo Albanian intellectuals and activists. However, according to sources in both Tirana and Tetovo, the proposal was scuppered by Rugova's refusal, since he surfaced a month ago, to visit Tirana or even to meet with Thaci.

Many Kosovo Albanian analysts fear that the rift among rival factions will divert attention from more pressing issues, hamper reconstruction efforts and annoy the international community.

Speaking under condition of anonymity, one leading Kosovo Albanian activist said: "The split between the Albanian political leaders is taking the focus away from serious issues that will plague Kosovo for sometime to come. "They have not paid close enough attention to the current agreement, which is good for the return of the refugees, but comes short of addressing the future status of Kosovo," he said.

Sensing that its star is in the ascendant and that it will spearhead Kosovo's next administration, the KLA have begun a campaign to recruit prominent, young intellectuals to their ranks.

To date, however, they have failed to win over some of the most respected Kosovo Albanians, such as Veton Surroi, publisher of Kosovo's largest pre-war daily newspaper, Koha Ditore, and Blerim Shala, editor-in-chief of the weekly Zeri.

Surroi has been in hiding in Kosovo since the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign in late March and has yet to surface. Shala moved to Macedonia to relaunch his newspaper in exile, while leaving communication lines open with all sides. Both Surroi and Shala formed part of the Kosovo Albanian delegation at the Rambouillet peace talks.

In the past, Rugova's adviser Fehmi Agani mediated between Kosovo's feuding factions. In his inimical way, Agani was able to build coalitions and to win concessions from all sides by reminding everyone that they shared a common goal - an independent Kosovo. However, Agani was executed by Serb forces during the NATO bombing campaign and no one has yet emerged to take on this role.

Since most Kosovo Albanians are principally concerned about being able to return to their homes in security, and not who forms their province's next government, they may yet be grateful that the international forces beat all their leaders to Pristina.

Fron Nazi is a senior editor with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.