As Belgrade Goes, So Goes Pristina?

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The Serbs, when given a choice, elected a moderate nationalist to represent them; now the Kosovar Albanians appear to be doing the same. Initial indications are that Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo won an impressive victory in the first elections held in the territory since NATO expelled the Yugoslavian army. Although the vote, which was boycotted by the territory's Serb minority, was to appoint representatives to local authorities, they represented the first opportunity for Kosovo's Albanians to state their political preferences since the war. And Rugova's victory appears to have been a stunning setback for Hashem Thaci and other former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who had long disparaged Rugova's moderation.

Although he previously had Washington's ear as the popular, pacifist advocate of independence for Kosovo, that changed after the Rambouillet talks early in 1999 when the West began to gear up to fight Slobodan Milosevic for control of the territory. The war saw Rugova eclipsed by the KLA leadership, and by the time it ended State Department officials were feting Thaci and expressing wariness over Rugova. But the continuing violence in Kosovo, which includes both attacks on the remaining Serbs and internecine Albanian turf wars, may have turned many Kosovar Albanians back to Rugova, particularly in light of the fact that the Serbs, too, have elected a man who appears to favor negotiation over violence.

But the fact that both the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians have now chosen scholarly men of reason to lead them doesn't diminish the differences they'll have to bridge. Despite his pacifism, Rugova is as firmly committed to independence as Thaci is, while Yugoslavian president Vojislav Kostunica is determined to hold on to it by legal means. And of course right now, Kostunica has the "law" on his side, in the sense that the U.N. resolution that ended last year's war affirmed Yugoslavian sovereignty over an autonomous (but not independent) Kosovo. That's an issue that may still split NATO, with the U.S. being more inclined than its European allies to consider the possibility of independence for Kosovo. And the Kosovar Albanians have been a little alarmed by the changes in Belgrade, since Yugoslavia's rapprochement with the West may make their own quest for independence more difficult. Still, Sunday's election suggests that both sides are moving toward resolving their differences over a table rather than over the barrel of a Kalashnikov.