BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro — Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova, an unlikely politician who led the movement for Kosovo's independence, died of lung cancer Saturday, leaving the future of the province in question on the eve of talks over its possible independence.
Rugova, 61, a former literature professor who was a pacifist, became known as "the father of the nation" after he turned the issue of the province's independence from Serbia into a rallying cry for ethnic Albanians. He was twice elected president of Kosovo, a largely ceremonial post but one of symbolic importance to ethnic Albanians, who long wanted it made clear that they did not accept Serbia's political rule.
He died just as his dream of an independent Kosovo was coming closer to reality. Talks were slated to begin this week on Kosovo's quest for independence, but U.N. officials announced Saturday that the negotiations would be delayed to allow Kosovo Albanians a mourning period.
A province of Serbia, Kosovo has been governed as a U.N. protectorate since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched airstrikes in 1999 to stop an "ethnic cleansing" campaign against ethnic Albanians. Serbian forces under then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had forced more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians to flee their homes; 10,000 were killed.
The province's place in the former Yugoslav federation had long caused tension. It was the only area in Yugoslavia that had a majority of ethnic Albanians, who speak a different language and practice a different faith -- most of them are Muslims -- than the Orthodox Christian Serbs. Today, more than 90% of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians; about 100,000 Serbs remain in the province.
In the years of unrest leading up to the conflict and during the war, Rugova was a conciliatory figure who strove to find a way to avoid an armed confrontation. That was in sharp contrast to fellow ethnic Albanians, many of whom joined the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army.
"It is particularly tragic that President Rugova should leave us at this very decisive moment for the future of Kosovo," said Soren Jessen-Petersen, the U.N. special representative to Kosovo.
Jessen-Petersen joined U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other international leaders Saturday in urging ethnic Albanians to work with Serbs to determine the future of the province.
"The best tribute we can pay to President Rugova and his legacy is to stay united during the coming months," said Jessen-Petersen, adding that Rugova left behind a legacy of "determination and perseverance and dialogue."
Rugova's death is likely to make the coming talks on Kosovo's status more difficult. Kosovo officials will be meeting with Serbian negotiators as well as representatives from the United Nations, the U.S. and Europe. Officials in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, have long resisted Kosovo's efforts to secede. The province has enormous symbolic significance for Orthodox Serbs: It is the seat of their church, and several Serbian monasteries designated as world heritage sites are in western Kosovo.
Although many people expect it will be years before Kosovo wins full independence, ethnic Albanians say it is unacceptable for them to be tied to Serbia again. Western officials had looked to Rugova to serve as a moderating influence and set the tone of negotiations.
"He didn't play an important political role lately," said Djordje Vukadinovic, a political analyst in Belgrade. "But [his death] could significantly increase tensions in the Albanian camp, and that is why his death could indirectly have profound implications on the talks" in Vienna.
"Ethnic Albanian negotiators are now likely to be even more hard-line, because they will be eyeing his heritage.... In these situations in the Balkans, and especially in Kosovo, it is about who will be the new godfather, not just who will be the new leader," Vukadinovic said.
Despite his conciliatory tone, Rugova never swerved from his adherence to the simple but radical mantra that Kosovo needed to be independent. Born in Kosovo on Dec. 2, 1944, Rugova graduated in Albanian studies at the university in Pristina and then attended the Sorbonne in Paris before becoming a prominent author and leading intellectual in the ex-communist Yugoslav federation.
Rugova, who liked to wear a continental-style scarf, emerged on the political scene in 1989 when he became president of the Kosovo Writers Union. He was a signatory to the "Appeal of 215 Kosovo Intellectuals," a manifesto opposing amendments to the Yugoslav Constitution that had revoked Kosovo's autonomy in all but name.
That same year, ethnic Albanians elected Rugova president in a secret ballot. He became a symbol of the Kosovo opposition.
In response to Milosevic's decision to in effect revoke Kosovo's autonomy, Rugova founded the Democratic League of Kosovo. As party leader, he espoused a policy of nonviolent resistance. The party helped create a parallel administration of hospitals, schools and taxation for Kosovo Albanians.
His commitment to independence was adopted by all the Albanian factions in Kosovo. And despite struggles over power, he kept politicians of different stripes working together.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana described Rugova "as a man of peace, firm in the face of oppression, but deeply committed to the ideals of nonviolence."
Rugova is survived by his wife and three children.
\o7Times staff writer Rubin reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Cirjakovic from Belgrade.