The mystery of Rugova

'Peace rules under Kosovo's Gandhi-like leader' The Age 16 Nov, p. 13 (2001)

Ibrahim Rugova looks every centimetre the image of a French intellectual—long hair, stubble, 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.

For a while, it seemed that ‘the Ghandi of the Balkans’ had been overtaken by hardliners. Serbian troops began a campaign of terror in response to NATO bombing. The guerrilla methods of the Kosovo Liberation Army seemed a more effective, and inspiring, means of self-defence. The danger in NATO victory was that it would leave political power in hands more used to the Kalashnikov than the handshake. The West’s stereotype of the Balkans as a terminal basketcase would be comfortably confirmed.

But in last weekend’s election, the pacifist 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.

I first became aware of Rugova when I followed up some strange music I’d heard on ethnic radio. In explaining problem of Kosovo to me, Melbourne Albanians evoked Rugova as testament to the faith that non-violence would eventually win Western help. I have since listened to songs composed in his honour, seen the Rugova dance, eaten at a Tirane restaurant named after him, and was eventually granted a mission as Melbourne envoy 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. Like other countries making the transition to democracy, Albania sought ‘eyes of the world’ such as mine to insure against a possible backlash.

After fifty years of ultra-Stalinist rule, Albanians had just elected their first non-communist President. But with the end of isolationism came the fear of a Greater Albania, grabbing neighbouring regions of Yugoslavia and Greece where Albanians were in the majority. 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 divide.

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 five weeks old, Rugova’s father and grandfather were executed in front of his family home by the Serbian communists who eventually seized power in Yugoslavia.

Rather than take up arms, 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 any study of national culture. 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 bombardment.

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. Rugova invokes the Albanian saying, ‘a person in democracy often has to eat hot stones’. That acceptance of difference has borne fruit: Albanians have laid down their arms in Macedonia, Milosevic is in The Hague and now elections have proceeded peacefully in Kosovo.

This uncertain peace is particularly poignant back in Melbourne. In November every year, local Albanians hold a festival in Footscray Park. Along with the inevitable cevapi and oriental 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 that trampled 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, many Albanians converted to Bektashism, which is a brand of Islam similar to the Alevi faith professed by Kurds. Bektashism does not enforce the pilgrimage to Mecca or prohibit alcohol. Enlightenment is often gained through obscure jokes, delivered by secular priests.

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 identity.

The example of Albanians in Melbourne is a warm 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.

Kevin Murray©2000