By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 30 May 2006
The popular independence movement that dominates democratic politics in Kosovo claims few greater heroes than Agim Ceku, prime minister of the breakaway province, elected two months ago.
Slim and youthful, the shaven-headed Mr Ceku, 44, exudes an effortless authority born of long experience as a military commander.
After fighting Serb troops as a high-ranking officer in the Croatian army in 1991, the Kosovo Albanian veteran went on to become chief of staff for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
Politics may be a softer game, but Mr Ceku now faces another decisive battle as leader of the Kosovo government that could this year gain formal independence for the province – or squander the apparent goodwill of the leading western powers.
Sitting in his oak-panelled office, the former commander points to a wall where an oil-painted canvas shows him hard at work in the aftermath of the Kosovo’s 1998-99 war. Mr Ceku is depicted in rebel fatigues, sleeves rolled up, flush with victory over Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb forces, plotting Kosovo’s way forward in the company of Nato generals and United Nations envoys.
“At that time, I thought independence would come in two or three years,” he says.
It is now seven years and counting for Mr Ceku, whose patience is being further tried this year as Pristina and Belgrade tiptoe through their first tentative efforts at postwar dialogue.
The prime minister’s power remains strictly limited by the foreign diplomats who retain final decision-making authority over Kosovo’s future status. His government claims only limited powers as one of several “provisional institutions of self-government” established under United Nations supervision four years ago.
Mr Ceku claims that the UN Security Council has already quietly made up its mind about Kosovo’s future political status. “Everyone knows what the decision is going to be,” he says, flashing a confident smile that leaves no doubt he means independence.
Soren Jessen-Petersen, head of the UN mission in Kosovo, insists that “nothing has been determined” about the details of the province’s future status.
The Kosovo government’s counterparts in Belgrade also disagree vociferously that independence is a foregone conclusion. The Serbian government remains fundamentally opposed to the province’s secession, continuing negotiations notwithstanding.
In Belgrade, where the KLA is remembered as a “terrorist” army, Mr Ceku is still wanted on a warrant accusing him of war crimes, in Croatia and in Kosovo.
Vojislav Kostunica, the prime minister in Belgrade, holds Mr Ceku personally responsible for vicious anti-Serb violence that occurred both during the 1998-1999 war and afterward.
The Serbian government calls his rise to political leadership, even if welcomed by the UN, “completely unacceptable” and “a mockery of the values that democratic society is founded on”.
Mr Ceku declines to comment, saying only that he cares more about the views in Washington and Brussels, where he claims powerful friends. He has been twice arrested on Belgrade’s warrant – in Slovenia in 2003 and in Hungary in 2004 – and twice freed after hasty diplomatic interventions.
Ironically, Belgrade’s campaign against Mr Ceku could help the Kosovo Albanians’ drive for full and unconditional independence. Few in the international community see intractability and accusation as winning tactics.
For his part, Mr Ceku is wrong-footing Belgrade, toeing the international line whenever possible and openly courting Serb public opinion. To the shock of the ethnic Albanian deputies who filled the legislature in March for his inaugural address, he delivered a conciliatory speech in fluent Serbo-Croat, calling for reconciliation with the province’s ethnic minorities.
“In a democratic Kosovo, you Serbs, like Kosovo’s other citizens, will have a future, because it belongs to everyone, and together we will create a society guaranteeing freedom, equality, economic progress for everyone regardless of their ethnicity,” he pledged.
Most Serbs disbelieve him instinctively. Conciliatory gestures have come from Pristina’s leaders before, including some of Mr Ceku’s predecessors who, when an anti-Serb pogrom swept through Kosovo in March 2004, hesitated before condemning the outrageous violence.
But the government’s approach is accompanied, promisingly, by small signs that Kosovo’s ethnically riven society has begun to normalise. Among Mr Ceku’s colleagues is one Serb, Slavisa Petkovic, the minister in charge of refugee returns. He and other Serb politicians have begun openly questioning the longstanding policy, backed by Belgrade, of boycotting the elections and parliamentary sessions.
Western diplomats praise Kosovo’s infant democracy for its weathering political upheavals. The death this year of Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo’s longtime president and a pacifist icon widely regarded as “the father of Kosovo independence”, passed without incident, followed by parliament’s election of Mr Rugova’s successor, Fatmir Sejdiu. Similarly Kosovo in late 2004 peacefully received the resignation and extradition of a prime minister, KLA veteran Ramush Haradinaj, when international prosecutors indicted him for alleged war crimes.
Mr Petersen hails the ethnic Albanian majority for its “calm and dignity” in the face of such challenges.
But whether it would respond in such a way if forced to accept any future status for Kosovo other than full independence is the province’s million dollar question.