Kosovo president Ibrahim Rugova has died of lung cancer at the age of 61. Nicknamed “the Gandhi of the Balkans” by some, Rugova was an icon of the ethnic Albanian drive to win independence from Serbia. His death comes at a crucial time for Kosovo Albanians – UN-backed talks on the province’s status due to start in a few days have now been postponed.
The province, which has been run by the United Nations since the 1999 NATO bombings to drive out Serb forces, is a hotspot of tension between the majority ethnic Albanians and the minority Serb population. It is legally part of Serbia and Montenegro. Tearful mourners gathered at Rugova’s residence in the Kosovo capital Pristina where flags were lowered at half-mast. A staunch believer in passive resistance to Serb domination, Rugova had long been a popular figure among moderate Kosovars.As president he had few powers and fought hard to try to quell disputes which divided the ethnic Albanian leadership. He had survived two assassination attempts. Diagnosed with cancer in September 2005, he had been undergoing treatment at his home in Pristina. No clear successor has been designated to replace him as the head of the divided Democratic League of Kosovo. The head of parliament is expected to be named acting president until the parliament chooses a new leader.