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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 January 2006, 10:37 GMT
Kosovo mourns iconic leader
By Matt Prodger
BBC News, Pristina, Kosovo

Mourners in Pristina
Thousands have braved cold temperatures to pay their respects
Huge crowds of people have poured onto the streets of the Kosovo capital Pristina for the funeral of President Ibrahim Rugova.

Since Saturday, thousands have travelled from all over Kosovo - and beyond - to pay their respects.

They have queued for hours in temperatures well below freezing outside the national parliament where Mr Rugova's open coffin lies.

To an accompaniment of sombre classical music, wet feet shuffle through melted snow as they file past the man who stood at the head of Kosovo Albanian society for almost two decades.

He was an iconic figure in Kosovo - in the late 1980s he emerged as the head of an ethnic Albanian political movement fighting for independence from Yugoslavia, later Serbia.

After Nato and ethnic Albanian guerrillas drove Serbian security forces out of Kosovo in 1999, Mr Rugova was elected president twice, and most recently was preparing to lead the province into long-awaited independence negotiations.

Serb homeland

Across the road from the parliament, regulars at Tony's cafe are sitting watching the same scene on television. They are in no doubt he was a hero.

"Ibrahim Rugova was a symbol of our path towards independence. He was the leader," says one man.

Another adds: "He was absolutely part of history, and our biggest political figure during these 15 years."

In all those positions he was extremely important as a unifying factor
Agron Bajrami
Editor-in-chief of Koha Ditore

But his death comes at a critical moment in Kosovo's turbulent history; in a few weeks, negotiations will begin with Serbia and the international community over the province's final status. A lot is at stake.

For Serbs, independence would mean the loss of their spiritual homeland. For ethnic Albanians, it would be the fulfilment of a dream. Mr Rugova's death has created uncertainty for both sides.

Agron Bajrami, editor-in-chief of Koha Ditore, the biggest selling newspaper in Kosovo, says at least three positions need to be filled following Mr Rugova's death.

"First of all he was president of Kosovo. He was still the leader of the biggest party in Kosovo - and the one that is the strongest party in the coalition government - and the third position is that he was also the head of the negotiating team," he said. "In all those positions he was extremely important as a unifying factor."

But can the negotiating team, Kosovo politicians and the United Nations hold things together without him?

"Definitely we are going to see some sort of struggle, but I don't think that struggle will endanger the whole process of status talks, although you never know - this is the Balkans," said Mr Bajrami.

Uncertainty

Serbs are worried. They make up less than 10% of the population and since the war seven years ago they have relied on Nato peacekeepers to protect them.

In the Serb enclave of North Mitrovica, local politician Oliver Ivanovic fears that with Ibrahim Rugova gone, radical Albanians will have free rein.

Hashim Thaci
The independence of Kosovo is not the property of Ibrahim Rugova
Hashim Thaci
"He is someone who could control not just the LDK, his political party, but he could control a huge majority of the Albanians," he says.

"Now this space is empty. We are just thinking who could replace him, but we are absolutely aware that his replacement cannot control the whole Albanian political scene.''

One man has much to gain: Hashim Thaci, former head of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, and now Kosovo's most popular politician.

He was a bitter rival to Mr Rugova. He is despised by Serbs, adored by radical Albanians, and he now effectively heads the Kosovo government negotiating team. He told me there would be no compromise.

"The independence of Kosovo is not the property of Ibrahim Rugova. The independence of Kosovo is the will of the people and we will implement it," he said.

"If you think that anybody who works for independence is radical then I can say that the two million people of Kosovo are radical because all of them are in favour of independence. We deserve it, we earned it."

Mr Rugova dominated hearts and minds here in a way that is unlikely to be repeated.

For the health of Kosovo's fledgling democracy, that is perhaps a good thing. But for the people of Kosovo who looked to one man for guidance and reassurance, these are unsettling times.


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