Rugova defies convention to stay ahead in Kosovo

MOSCOW, Apr 1, 2000 -- (Reuters) A year ago, Ibrahim Rugova appeared smiling shaking hands on television with Slobodan Milosevic even though the people he represented were being terrorized by the Yugoslav president's security forces.

Since that meeting with Milosevic, Rugova - leader of Kosovo's long pre-eminent ethnic Albanian political party - has pursued various other actions that would also be conventionally associated with political suicide.

But Rugova's fortunes over the past 12 months fly in the face of Western wisdom. The Sorbonne-educated academic still heads Kosovo's biggest political party and it enjoys a huge lead over all its competitors.

A poll conducted last month by Gallup for the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force gave Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) 45 percent support, more than 30 points ahead of the second-placed party led by his main rival, Hashim Thaqi.

While no one is claiming political research here is an exact science yet, the survey was keenly studied by diplomats and officials looking for pointers to the outcome of Kosovo's first post-war elections, expected in October this year.

Rugova's continuing popularity is quite an achievement for someone who has done no political campaigning since returning to Kosovo last summer, rarely even ventures out of his house, let alone the capital city Pristina, and seldom speaks to the media.

The youthful Thaqi enjoys a far higher public profile. He was a leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which broke with Rugova's 1990s policy of passive resistance to Serbian state repression.

The KLA began a guerrilla war in 1998 that prompted a brutal crackdown on Kosovo's Albanian majority, leading in turn to last year's NATO bombing which drove out Serbian forces and made the Yugoslav province a de facto international protectorate.


But while the KLA and Thaqi were feted for military success, diplomats and analysts detect a feeling among Kosovo Albanians that the LDK is better suited to peacetime politics and that they can forgive Rugova for his meeting with Milosevic.

Although Rugova has never offered much of an explanation for the encounter with the Albanians' nemesis, it seems clear he and his family were under de facto house arrest and he had little choice but to comply with Milosevic's request for a meeting.

"He's a professor, not a hero," said one Western diplomat, summing up the popular feeling about the LDK leader.

The LDK has also benefited from accusations - denied by Thaqi - that the KLA is widely involved in much of the organized crime and violence that has plagued post-war Kosovo.

"Maybe the people here trust Rugova to really bring peace," said another Western diplomat trying to explain the continuing success of the literary history specialist, who was elected president of Kosovo in an unofficial vote in 1998.

"People here want to live in peace. They don't want to be blackmailed. They don't want to pay protection money," he added.

As the province's main political party over the past decade, the LDK also has a formidable organizational network while Thaqi's Party for the Democratic Progress of Kosovo (PPDK) is having to build its structures largely from scratch.

Rugova's reclusive lifestyle has frustrated and perplexed some Western officials, who would like to see him take more of a lead in calling for an end to the violence and building up post-war institutions.

But others say he is simply staying true to his pacifist instincts and wants to avoid any confrontation which could raise the political temperature in the still-volatile territory.

"He doesn't want to rock the boat," one diplomat said. "He doesn't want to go out there and do anything stupid."

After all, if you're winning in the opinion polls without even campaigning, why risk a change of strategy?

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