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Kosovo Ponders Future Without Rugova

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A mourner holds photo of the late Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova. i

Kosovo Albanians waited in line for hours in the cold to pay their last respects to President Ibrahim Rugova. Eleanor Beardsley hide caption

toggle caption Eleanor Beardsley
A mourner holds photo of the late Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova.

Kosovo Albanians waited in line for hours in the cold to pay their last respects to President Ibrahim Rugova.

Eleanor Beardsley

Kosovo must looking to a tenuous future without its leader. President Ibrahim Rugova, who led efforts for independence from Serbian domination, was laid to rest this week after succumbing to cancer at age 61.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition, from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. Coming up rethinking mass transit. But first, Kosovo Albanians have responded to the death of Ibrahim Rugova with sadness and concern. Kosovo has been an international protectorate administered by the United Nations since 1999 and the NATO bombing campaign ousted former Serbian President Slobadan Milosevic forces. Now ethnic Albanians fear that the void left by Mr. Rugova's death could jeopardize Kosovo's chance to become fully independent and at peace within the region. Eleanor Beardsley sends us this report from Pristina near Kosovo.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, reporting:

(sound bite of music) President Ibrahim Rugova's funeral Friday had all the appearances of a state burial. (music gets louder) The procession bearing his flag draped coffin through the icy streets of Pristina was led by an honor guard carrying the Albanian flag. The Kosovo Anthem was played at Rugova's funeral service attended by dignitaries from 40 world nations. And a 15 day official mourning period has been declared, but Kosovo is not a state. It is still a province of Serbia.

(sound bite of crowd noise)

Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians who flooded the street to say goodbye to their president had hoped he would lead them in negotiations toward independence from Serbia in talks that were to open this past week. Those talks have now been postponed. Alex Anderson(ph) is the Kosovo Project Director of the International Crisis Group. He says the void left by Rugova's departure could delay the talks for a long time.

ALEX ANDERSON (Project Director, Kosovo International Crisis Group): We may see weeks, perhaps even months of wrangling and maneuvering amongst Kosovo Albanians for over who is going to now fill the big post, the head of the largest part of the LDK. The presidency of Kosovo, the head of Kosovo's negotiating team.

BEARDSLEY: While Kosovo Serbs were notably absent from Rugova's funeral, they have expressed concerns over his passing. Rugova's committed pacifism set him apart from his possible successors who hail from a generation of Albanian politicians that came to power in 1999, after fighting in the Albanian Guerilla Movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army. (Sound bite of woman speaking in foreign language)

In appearance, Kosovo is already independent from Serbia. Ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs nine to one, and the Albanian language dominates the airways. One is often hard pressed to find signs of Serbian existence. Most Serbs live separately from Albanians in enclaves still watched over by NATO peacekeepers.

Agron Birami(ph) is Editor in Chief of Kosovo's main Albanian language newspaper, Koha Ditore. He says that after what happened in the 1990s, Kosovo Albanians could never again live under Belgrade's rule.

AGRON BIRAMI (Editor, Koha Ditore): These days even the Serb officials are saying publicly that they are not interested into ruling Albanians. They just want to have the territory under their sovereignty. And if this is about territories and not about people, then I think well we should think twice whether we are just setting the stage for the next conflict.

BEARDSLEY: Off the record, international officials working in Kosovo say that some form of independence with conditions attached will be the likely outcome of status talks. Independence or not, says Kosovo Albanian Analyst Duca Jin Garani.(ph) Rugova's departure far from leaving a vacuum may finally clear the way for real debate and democracy in Kosovo. Garani likens Rugova to many of the region's other previous dictators.

DUCA JIN GARANI (Kosovo Albanian Analyst): He could affect mindset of population by imposing himself as a fatherly figure. Patriarchal perceptions are still strong in this part of the world. Rugova utilized that mindset so that he gained moral dictatorship over Kosovos.

BEARDSLEY: With Rugova gone, Kosovo is finally through with nationalist Balkan politics of the 1990s says Garani. Now he hopes Kosovo will be able to focus on new leadership, developing its economy and moving toward eventual integration with the European Union. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.

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