Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova died of lung cancer Saturday, leaving the province’s fractious political scene in disarray just before the start of crucial talks on whether it should gain the independence from Serbia that was his lifelong dream.
His departure leaves a leadership vacuum at the most sensitive time since the Kosovo war ended in 1999.
International leaders appealed for calm and unity in the disputed U.N.-administered province. The Serb government expressed fears that Rugova’s successor might not share his commitment to nonviolence.
The much-anticipated talks between ethnic Albanians and Serb officials to determine Kosovo’s future had been scheduled to begin Wednesday in Vienna, Austria. But the talks were postponed until February following the death of the man who came to embody ethnic Albanian aspirations for independence.
Rugova, 61, was surrounded by family at his home in Pristina when he died just before midday, said his spokesman, Muhamet Hamiti.
“He carried his battle with cancer with great dignity and courage until his last breath,” Hamiti said.
‘Gandhi of the Balkans’
The flag at Rugova’s hillside residence was lowered to half-staff, and tearful employees, bodyguards and neighbors gathered outside his home. Pristina’s streets were empty, with people glued to their radios and television screens.
Rugova often was called the “Gandhi of the Balkans” — an allusion to the Indian leader’s epic nonviolent campaign for his nation’s independence. He had been at the center of Kosovo politics for more than 15 years, leading the nonviolent struggle against repression under former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
With his trademark scarf wrapped around his neck, Rugova had gained cult status among some ethnic Albanians. The chain-smoking politician, whose 2002 election made him the province’s first president since the United Nations took over Kosovo’s administration, was diagnosed with cancer in September.
While he was undergoing treatment, Rugova continued regular meetings with Western politicians, insisting on recognition of the province’s independence even as he struggled at times to catch his breath.
Death leaves a void
His death comes as the restive province of 2 million embarks on a delicate process of negotiating a solution that ethnic Albanians — a 90 percent-plus majority — hope will end in full independence. The Serb minority in Kosovo and in Serbia insist the province they view as the cradle of their culture remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced what remained of Yugoslavia.
Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since NATO launched a bombing campaign to end a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebel separatists in 1999.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he believed Rugova’s death “will not disrupt this process,” and his envoy appointed to oversee the difficult status talks, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, said he hoped they would soon resume.
“I’m certain that President Rugova would have liked to see that we will proceed with the status negotiations,” Ahtisaari said in Helsinki. “I also express the hope that the situation will remain calm.”
Condolences from abroad
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said “the people of Kosovo have lost a great leader.”
“President Rugova led his people through challenging times and earned the world’s respect for his advocacy of democracy and peace,” she said. “The United States will continue to work with all the people of Kosovo to build a society based upon the principles of democracy, human rights and inter-ethnic tolerance that President Rugova valued so deeply.”
French President Jacques Chirac urged those involved in the talks to continue in Rugova’s “spirit of realism, tolerance and dialogue.”
Kosovo’s main leaders made a joint statement with the province’s U.N. administrator, Soren Jessen-Petersen, attempting to assuage fears about the future.
“Together with the people (of Kosovo) we are united in our determination to see Kosovo continue on its path toward a peaceful and prosperous future,” said the statement read by Jessen-Petersen.
However, the Serbian government expressed anxiety that Rugova’s successor would not share his commitment to nonviolence. The Serbian government representative for Kosovo, Sandra Raskovic-Ivic, said from Belgrade that other Kosovo Albanian leaders had been involved in attacks against the province’s Serb minority.
“I do not trust them very much” she said. “I am worried if someone from that echelon takes his place, somebody who would incite unrest and violence to achieve independence.”
Nexhat Daci, the head of Kosovo’s assembly, likely will serve as acting president. While greeting mourners at Rugova’s residence, he pledged the province will “not lose its drive and its calm.”
“Kosovo is in deep mourning,” said Daci, sitting in a chair next to the one usually reserved for Rugova.
Rugova’s death leaves ethnic Albanians grappling with possible succession battles.
No other Kosovo politician has been held in such high regard. He won international respect through his peaceful opposition to Serb dominance, in contrast to other Kosovo Albanians now in positions of leadership, who were part of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.
The party he created, the Democratic League of Kosovo, is fraught with divisions that could be exacerbated by his death. The party currently is in a coalition with the smaller Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, led by Ramush Haradinaj, a former rebel commander indicted for war crimes by a U.N. court in The Hague, Netherlands.
Rugova is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.