02 February 2006

Kosovo searches for Rugova successor as talks loom

Reuters, Sat Jan 21, 2006 06:07 PM ET By Matthew Robinson


PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - Kosovo Albanians began the search on Sunday for a new president to lead the disputed Serbian province into independence negotiations after Ibrahim Rugova died aged 61, leaving no clear successor.


Rugova's death on Saturday of lung cancer left the 90 percent Albanian majority leaderless on the eve of direct talks with Belgrade to decide whether Kosovo becomes independent or remains part of Serbia, as Belgrade insists.


A charismatic and powerful figurehead, Rugova has no obvious replacement as president or at the helm of the Kosovo negotiating team. He will be buried on Wednesday, the day United Nations-mediated talks were due to begin.


The talks in Vienna have been postponed to early February.


Parliament has three months to vote in a new president but Kosovo's Western backers will want Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo to overcome bitter factionalism and nominate a successor sooner.


"I expect the momentum generated by President Rugova to be sustained, and that Kosovo's political leaders assume the responsibility to remain unified," said Martti Ahtisaari, the U.N. envoy appointed in November to chair negotiations.


Legally part of Serbia, the province of 2 million people has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist guerillas.


The U.N. Security Council gave the green light to status talks late last year, responding to growing Albanian impatience with the status quo and U.S. warnings of fresh violence.


The major powers have signaled they want a decision on status within the year. Serbia says Kosovo is the cradle of the Serb nation and can never become independent.


But the Albanian majority has ruled out a return to Serb rule after years of repression in the 1990s, when Rugova turned the other cheek while he created a virtual underground state.


His policy of passive resistance was eclipsed by the guerillas in 1998, but he bounced back after the war and was twice elected president. Five days of mourning began on Sunday.


Diplomats say Western powers will likely steer negotiations toward a form of independence, under continued international supervision for years to come.