The Departure of the Balkan Clouseau1

In ancient times and during the middle ages, enlightened people spoke de mortuis nihil nisi bene – nothing ill of the dead. This polite habit can be explained by the fact that the middle ages saw nothing of the Ibrahim Rugova phenomenon. Reporter Gojko Beric, of the Sarajevo paper Oslobodjenje, himself prone to historical reflection, conjures up somewhat different historical categories. There are, he writes, politicians who “only death transforms into national legends”. “His death,” according to Beric, “brings us back to the eternal enigma of personalities who changed history only to find that in the end, history would determine their fate.”

While my humble education as a historian prevents me from fully understanding the metaphysical meaning of the “eternal enigma” which confuses the Sarajevo reporter, I agree that the historical significance of Rugova is a mystery. I remember of one my attempts as a student, writing in one of those deathly boring academic journals that intellectuals pretend to study religiously, to compose “a history of the ordinary person”. I attempted to reconstruct the life of one entirely ordinary French peasant whose everyday existence illuminated and, to some extent, explained, the reality of that distant age. When it comes to Ibrahim Rugova however, the intellectual instinct, which presents itself to a historian, is entirely different. How to write the history of an entirely insignificant man? A man who, like Sellers’ brave Inspector Clouseau, is, despite his tragicomedic antics, internationally recognized as a genius?

No, let’s stop here for a minute. Just who was this Ibrahim Rugova? According to the mainstream Western press, he was a poet, a writer, a man of peace, non-violence, and tolerance. (ARD-Majnc) He was, as well, Don Quixote and a visionary. (Kathimerini-Athens) In the international community he is most commonly, in fact, referred to as the Balkan Gandhi. (Globe and Mail) Some also called him the Balkan “Roland Bart”, after the celebrated French literary theorist, who, according to Rugova’s friends, during a stay at the Sorbonne, once greeted him in a university hallway.

Rugova was also a President. Not of a state really, at least not a real state – he was President of Kosovo, one of the lower rung Balkan international protectorates exercising a dubious sovereignty. Rugova founded the Democratic League of Kosovo, and he was, according to the Independent Bangladesh, a leading intellectual in formerly communist Yugoslavia. Kosovo Premier Berisa called him, not intending anything negative, the father of the “Kosovo-Albanian nation”. UN Special Representative Soren Jensen-Petersen wrote somewhere that Rugova left “a legacy of determination, curiosity and dialogue.” An article in the Luxembourg magazine Tageblat argued that Rugova’s Kosovo showed “genuine progress on the road to democracy, the rule of law and a market economy”. They probably didn’t give much thought to the persecution of tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbs and Roma. Or perhaps ethnic cleansing, when performed by our friends, can be considered democratic?

The Paris magazine Le Figaro sketches the career of the “Balkan Gandhi”. When Rugova won the leadership of the Democratic League of Kosovo in December of 1989, our Gandhi undertook a whole series of initiatives – a declaration of independence (July 1990), the adoption of a constitution for the self-proclaimed republic of Kosovo (September 1990); a referendum on the independence of the region (September 1991); and a victory in parliamentary elections (2000). In 1998, the European parliament awarded him the “Andrej Saharov” prize for contributions to democracy and the protection of human rights. A reporter for the Independent, Vesna Zimonjic, describes Rugova’s “accomplishments”: the Kosovar politician adopted a “Western value system” (whether this is meant as a compliment, I’m not entirely certain), laid the cornerstone for an independent Kosovo (in other words, defined Kosovo’s ethno-nationalist politics), and shaped Kosovo’s “national question” at the same time as he planned to erase Kosovo’s national divisions (just to be clear: the reporter offers us no argument in support of this thesis).

Zimonjic, in the same article, claims that, in comparison with other international statesmen, Serbian officials in Belgrade expressed “much cynicism” at Rugova’s death and showed little sympathy. This sort of behaviour does, of course, warrant every condemnation, especially if it actually happened: yet when Boris Tadic, the President of Serbia, of which Kosovo is still a part, announced that he would attend the funeral, nationalist Albanian leaders forbade his attendance. Zimonjic also writes that Rugova “began his political career at a time when the country was sickened by Milosevic’s regime, and now leaves it completely healed. He took the illness with him”. This rather unusual metaphor hides the fact that the real “illness” Kosovo’s politicians suffer from is ethno-nationalism. And unfortunately, Rugova did not take that illness with him.

What was Rugova really like? I will try and offer a somewhat different picture. This “man with the silk scarf”, was some “type of a monument to himself” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung); a caricature of an intellectual, famous for his silk scarves which were, apparently, popular in Paris at the time when Pristina’s existentialist ran into Roland Bart; always with a photogenic cigarette, known for his strange habit of presenting guests with rocks: at the end of a meeting with Pristina’s humble Sartre, each visitor would receive a map of the “Republic of Kosovo” and “a piece of independent Kosovo”, a gift-wrapped sparkling rock. Many did not hide their delight at the “Yugoslavian Havel”. One American diplomat confessed to Belgrade journalist Zoran Cirjakovic that “I do not understand how he succeeded, with that fake smile and those empty words, to lead on so many diplomats”.

The newspaper Der Tagesspiegel writes that Rugova was an authoritarian party leader: party congresses were rare, decisions made in secret and critics expelled from the party and attacked in the party newspaper, Boti Sot. These allegations are confirmed by loyalist Baton Hadziu when he says of Rugova that he was, “more than a leader, [he was] a political symbol who functioned more in keeping with monarchist principles”. Burdened by a mania for glory and in the typical manner of a provincial intellectual, he would often humiliate his colleagues in the presence of foreign diplomats. A group of his fellow party members warned the International Crisis Group [ICG] of Rugova’s “dictatorial inclinations”. The ICG pointed out Rugova’s utilization of communist party organization principles and lack of democratic instinct, describing him as an “inactive and authoritarian like a sphinx”. “Homeland Security”, the party’s secret police, announced in its “second communiqué” that its goal was to enforce correct behaviour on the part of party members. Rugova’s son Ulke is one of the party’s key members, but also one of the most privileged and wealthy of Kosovo’s businessmen. Nepotism, a lack of democracy and absolute loyalty were the primary principles of Rugova’s political behaviour. Much more dangerous than his political style, and much less entertaining than his provincial intellectualism however, was his ethnonationalist politics which we can call the Rugova doctrine.

Ibrahim Rugova was an intolerant extremist who for years uncompromisingly insisted on nationalist goals. Rugova is most responsible for the fact that Kosovo, despite the miners’ strike and street demonstrations, notwithstanding the existence of an international solidarity perspective, in spite of social struggle, labour resistance and the work of social movements, wound up with the cruel nationalism of the KLA. Kosovo’s nationalists, together with their Western mentors, played a well-organized game in which they were assisted by the unintelligent inert bureaucracy of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. Serbian nationalist Milosevic is represented in the West as the “Balkan butcher”, while the Kosovo nationalist is celebrated as the “Balkan Gandhi”. Rugova, as president of nothing, imagined hospitals, schools, parallel universities and a tax system, putting in place a nationalist auto-apartheid. The West, meanwhile, in conflict with Milosevic, needed a Kosovo symbiosis of Gandhi, Havel and Solzhenitsyn. This false picture was maintained for years. The Balkan Gandhi pretended that he had nothing to do with the nationalist terrorism of the KLA, even suggesting that it was a “provocation of the Serbian secret service”. Opposite of this “man of peace and understanding”, a sharper political line was taken by another nationalist politician, the KLA’s political representative, Adem Demaci, dubbed the “Balkan Mandela” by the Western media. A writer for the Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, Ennio Remedino, relates an interesting anecdote. When two Serbian civil servants, workers at the state radio station, “disappeared”, their spouses came to the paper to ask for assistance. Remedino, who was then in Kosovo, immediately spoke with Rugova. The supremely uninterested Gandhi sent him to Demaci, but Mandela simply shook his head and said, “one more widow”. After NATO’s aggression, that 78 day terror against civilians during which NATO served as the KLA’s air force, Rugova conjured, this time as a “near statesman” of an international protectorate, a theory of contra-apartheid: ethnic enclaves for the small number of stubborn Serbs and Roma who refused to leave Kosovo. The catastrophic result of the 15 year-long reign of this nationalist politician is the creation of a political climate in which freedom from Serbia became synonymous with freedom from Serbs and Roma. It was this sort of logic that incited the murderous ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Roma in March of 2004.

What awaits Kosovo in the “post-Rugova era” (Standard-Vienna)? The big question is who could succeed him as president and also as the head of Kosovo’s delegation to talks with Belgrade on the future status of the region. George Vukadinovic, editor of Nove Srpske Politicke Misli argues that in recent times Rugova “did not play an important political role. But his death could have a large impact on the negotiations in Vienna. Albanian negotiators will now probably be even more extreme… In these sort of situations, and especially in Kosovo, the question is who will be the new “Godfather”, not only who will be leader.”

Suggested new “Godfather” include Hasim Taci, former leader of the KLA, Kosovar media magnate Veton Suroi and Kosovo parliamentary leader Nedzat Daci (Rosijaskaja Gazeta). Le Monde has also put forward Ramusa Haradinaja’s name, the former KLA commander currently enjoying temporary freedom, while awaiting trial in The Hague. He has, according to the French paper, managed to unite “young pacifist intellectuals, guerilla veterans and Western diplomats”. Certainly an unusual mix! Also making an appearance on Kosovo’s political scene is a true gentleman, Bedzet Pacoli, owner of the Mabeteks firm who, according to a court in Lugano, helped former Russian president Boris Yeltsin open a account in a Swiss bank, as well as, according to a court in Trent, “laundering” several million dollars used to buy and sell military aircraft which was later sold to a Latin American state with the assistance of the current Russian secret service. According to Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, Pacoli was involved in transferring mafia money from Russia through various Western banks and off-shore companies. His friend Ibrahim Rugova, our Gandhi, often said that it was “time for him to settle down”. Nonetheless, Pacoli is now entering politics. He has stepped forward to build the new American university in Pristina. The cost? Spare change – approximately $20 million dollars. The university will be built with Russian taxpayers’ money so that the US, in addition to the world’s largest military base, Camp Bondsteel, where the CIA interrogates secret and unlawful detainees, can also get its own university – at no cost – in order to build and theorize the future of Kosovo. This dynamic businessman is, according to the Financial Time, also the founder of the Alliance for a New Kosovo, a Washington lobby group which counts among its sponsors former Secretary of Defence Frank Carlucci, Chairman of the Carlyle Group.

Kosovo’s nationalist leaders transformed Rugova’s funeral into a staging of the founding of a Kosovar state. What sort of a state will it be? N. Gvozdev, editor of the American magazine National Interest, offers one answer: “I’m afraid that the West, as in Iraq, will be disappointed by the democratic paradox, because the Albanian politicians are not prone to multiethnicity or divisions of power in the manner which the West would like”. He feels that there is no real difference between “conditional” and “true” independence. That is to say that in Washington, “the prevailing feeling is that a united Bosnia and an independent Kosovo suit American strategic interests. The Serbs are on the losing side, seen as just punishment for Milosevic’s crimes during the 90’s”. Does that apply to the Serbian and Roma civilians imprisoned within besieged ethnic enclaves? What will happen to them when the international forces withdraw from this protectorate born of bombing?

Kosovo’s independence is clearly only a matter of time. Washington has “already made the call” (Kurier), and only creating a timeline remains. The negotiations over its status, postponed by Rugova’s death but likely to begin next month, are largely a matter of political theatre. There is not chance that UN standards will be fulfilled. Promises about the protection and return of Serbian and Roma refugees were false, as were idealistic pronouncements of a multiethnic and multicultural Kosovo (Neues Deutschland). Independence means the beginning of the Albanization of Kosovo, the ultimate triumph of the logic of borders, ethnic conflict and nationalism. That is the true legacy of Ibrahim Rugova.

*Andrej Grubacic is an anarchist historian from somewhere in the Balkans. You can reach him at Zapata@mutualaid.org

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