Kevin Murray on Wed, 21 Nov 2001 07:55:50 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Rugova mystery

The following is a piece for The Age newspaper in Melbourne, written for a
general readership.

The mystery of Rugova

Ibrahim Rugova looks every centimetre the image of a French
intellectual-long hair, silk scarf and cigarette. He's the sort of person
you'd expect to find in a Carlton bookshop, far from the mainstream. Yet in
the international protectorate of Kosova, this scruffy scholar has been
granted a popular mandate.

In last weekend's election, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) received
twice the number of votes as any other party. Rugova is now widely expected
to take the position of presidency that he has held in a de facto fashion
for the past decade.

To local Albanians, he has long been a legendary figure. I've listened to
songs composed in his honour, eaten at restaurants named after him, and
eventually granted a mission to meet with Rugova in his Pristina
headquarters. He seemed the antithesis of any politician I'd known.

I met Rugova just after Albania's own velvet revolution in 1992. There were
fears that the fall of communism would lead to a Greater Albania, taking
with it some of Yugoslavia's most sacred land. The situation was
understandably tense.

The journey to find Rugova demonstrated the problems at hand. To reach the
capital of Kosovo, Pristina, from the capital of Albania, Tirane, I had to
travel via Athens. It took more than 40 hours to travel the same distance as
between Melbourne and Wangaratta. Albania and Kosovo contained roughly the
same race of people, but they lived on opposite sides of the political

On arriving at Pristina, I'd been advised to book into a Serbian hotel. The
atmosphere was thick with fear and intimidation. The door to my room had
been freshly kicked in. The LDK contact who came to meet me had been
interrogated the day before. But life continued, in whispers.

Rugova's party headquarters had been raided, so we met in a makeshift
office. I shook hands with a succession of dignified looking men in tweed
jackets. My hand eventually found that of Ibrahim Rugova, who apologised for
the rough reception.

He seized this as one of many opportunities to help bolster support from the
outside world. Rugova expressed a deep appreciation of support from
Australia's Albanian diaspora, and a sincere regret that he had never
travelled here, despite many invitations. He gave me two bottles of Kosova
wine and wished me luck getting back across the Macedonian border.

I was pleased for Melbourne friends to have made contact, but I felt none
the wiser about Rugova the man. Some politicians are capable of making a
brief encounter seem like a life-long friendship. Not Rugova. It was hard to
discern a personality behind the layers of cigarette smoke, thick glasses
and translator.

Rugova is an enigma many times over. His most noted personal interest is
mineralogy. The extensive private collection of rocks from around the region
seems to neatly reflect his opaque personality.

Rugova's pacifism is perhaps his greatest mystery. His Ghandi-like strategy
has defied the usual Balkan cycle of vindictiveness. This is despite his own
tragic story. When he was one year old, Rugova's father and grandfather were
executed in front of his family home. It is unclear whether the killers were
retreating Chetniks or advancing Communists, but their target was the
same--Albanian nationalism.

Rather than take up weapons at home, Rugova pursued a degree in Paris. He
studied linguistics at the Sorbonne under the writerly philosopher Roland
Barthes. Rugova has since published many books on Albanian literary
criticism and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from the University
of Paris.

On return to Pristina, he became a professor in Albanian literature. But
politics was inevitable with such a sensitive area of study. In 1988, he was
elected President of the Kosova Writers Association, which became a focus
for the burgeoning opposition movement. Rugova then helped found the LDK,
the first non-communist political party in Kosovo.

With the dissolution of the Kosovo provincial assembly in 1990, Rugova
oversaw the creation of a shadow state. A community-based infrastructure of
education, government and health compensated for the absence of state
support. The LDK became to symbolise a political alternative.

When war eventually came to Kosova, the world seemed polarised along
Orthodox lines. But Rugova was the exception. He was seen on television
greeting the arch-enemy Milosevic and refused to publicly back the NATO

Next he was in Rome, guest of the Community of St. Egidio, a group of
freelance Catholic diplomats active in trying to negotiate peace settlements
around the world. His statements were characteristically enigmatic, claiming
that 'we can all still live together'.

Maybe he was right. Elsewhere, history seems to have reverted to a medieval
clash of civilisations. Yet in the Balkans, a modern sophisticated peace
seems to have taken hold. Albanians have laid down their arms in Macedonia
and now elections have proceeded peacefully in Kosovo.

This uncertain peace is particularly poignant in Melbourne. In November
every year, local Albanians have a festival in Footscray Park. Along with
the inevitable cevapi and Turkish-style music, there are usually
interminable speeches and political anthems. Most of their songs celebrate
figures like Rugova who fought against the variety of foreign oppressors who
have come along to trample over Albanians.

It would be easy to think that the troubles in Kosovo have served to provide
the Albanian diaspora with a common cause. With the resolution of problems
back home, it seemed likely that the local Albanian culture would dissipate.

Far from it. It was a great shock to see that this year's picnic in
Footscray Park was more popular than ever. Men in singlets sat around
drinking raki and singing in haunting polyphonic harmonies. Circles of
dancers could barely move in the crush to join the stage. Everyone wore a
smile. It was like a grand wedding.

I asked a friend Mustapha about the change of heart, 'Well you see, when
there was all this fighting going on at home, we felt bad about having too
much of a good time. But now things are getting settled in Kosova, we can
really enjoy ourselves.'

It's one of those headlines that never happens-'Peace breaks out'. Yet the
relative calm that seems to have settled through the Albanian situation is
certainly worthy of celebration. Such a story is particularly important when
the conflict between the West and Islam makes it seem that the clash of
civilisations is the bottom line of world history.

Indeed, the key to Rugova's mystery probably lies in Islam. While perceived
by many as a Muslim intellectual, Rugova does not profess any particular
religion. Yet this very tolerance is peculiar to the Albanian style of
Muslim faith. Under Turkish rule, most Albanians converted to Bektashism,
which is a brand of Islam similar to the Alevi faith professed by many
Kurds. Bektashism does not enforce the Haj or prohibit alcohol.
Enlightenment is often gained through obscure jokes, delivered by secular

An especially holy Bektashi teacher is given the title 'Good Man', similar
to the Italian figure of Padre Pio. Young fighters in the KLA would visit
the grave of a Good Man before going into battle. In the absence of
democratic political structures, the Good Man provides a locus of community

The example of Albanians in Melbourne is a counterpoint to fears of what
might happen by granting asylum to those of Muslim faith. Their political
and spiritual leader, Ibrahim Rugova, provides the world with an alternative
story to the Manichean struggle in central Asia--a mysterious, complicated
and Balkan story.


Forecast for Melbourne Issued at 0505 on Wednesday the 21st of November 2001
Fine.  A mainly sunny day with moderate to fresh southeasterly wind. Max 22

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