26 March 2006

Sejdiu succeeds Rugova as Kosovo president



Source: Agence France-Presse (AFP)

Date: 10 Feb 2006


by Ismet Hajdari


PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro, Feb 10, 2006 (AFP) - Kosovo on Friday elected 54-year-old moderate Fatmir Sejdiu to succeed late president Ibrahim Rugova, whose death last month left a political void ahead of key talks on the status of the contested Serbian territory.


Sejdiu, of the biggest party in the province, Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), was the sole candidate in the parliamentary election, eventually winning the presidency in a final third round of voting in the 120-seat assembly.


The election of a replacement for Rugova, whom Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority saw as the "Father of the Nation", was brought forward from Monday next week at the urging of Soren Jessen-Petersen, the head of the UN mission that runs the province.


Sejdiu was one of the closest allies of Rugova, who died of lung cancer at the age of 61 on January 21, leaving a political vacuum ahead of crucial direct talks between the Albanian leaders and Serbia on Kosovo's future status.


Legally still a southern Serbian province, Kosovo's ethnic Albanians demand full independence from Belgrade. The province has been a UN protectorate since a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbian forces to withdraw in 1999 and end a crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanian rebels.


Friday's parliamentary election was forced into a third round after Sejdiu narrowly failed to garner the required two-thirds majority of 80 ballots in the first two rounds, picking up 78 and 77 votes in the balloting.


However, in the third round that requires a simple majority under Kosovo's provisional constitution, Sejdiu was elected president with 80 deputies for him, 12 against and 17 invalid ballots.


Another 10 seats in Kosovo's parliament belong to Serb representatives who have boycotted the chamber since anti-Serb violence swept the province in March 2004.


"Because of his experience, tolerance and understanding, we are persuaded that he will be very effective as the president" of Kosovo, the vice-president of the LDK, Kole Berisha, told deputies ahead of the vote.


It is not yet clear whether Sejdiu will also assume Rugova's role as the head of the ethnic Albanian negotiating team for the UN-backed future status talks, which are set to resume later this month after being delayed due to the late president's death.


The delicate negotiations on Kosovo's future status began tentatively in November but were postponed after Rugova's death. The UN hopes to bring ethnic Albanian and Serbian leaders together for their first face-to-face talks in Vienna later this month.


Sejdiu was selected as the LDK's candidate at the end of a 15-day period of mourning for the late president, vowing to "continue the vision of Rugova for the independence of Kosovo".


He went into the parliamentary session unopposed after gaining the support of nearly all local parties, including the main opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK) headed by former separatist Albanian guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci, as well as the international community.


The post of president is largely ceremonial in Kosovo, but the position holds much symbolism for the province's ethnic Albanians.


Sejdiu has served as the secretary-general of the LDK since it was established in 1989 and heads the party's parliamentary delegation.


The law professor at the University of Pristina speaks English and French, and originates from a village near the northern town of Podujevo. He is married and has three sons.


Ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs and other minorities in the province by more than nine to one.


Belgrade and its people are opposed to the independence of Kosovo, which they say has many features intrinsically linked to its national identity, including hundreds of Orthodox churches and monasteries dating back as far as the 11th century.