PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro – Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova, the ethnic Albanian leader and embodiment of the province's decades-long struggle for independence from Serbia, died of lung cancer Saturday without seeing his dream fulfilled. He was 61.
The United Nations currently administers Kosovo, and Rugova's death leaves the province's political scene in disarray at the most sensitive time since the end of the 1998-99 war between Yugoslav government forces and Kosovo Liberation Army.
The United Nations immediately postponed until February the first formal U.N.-mediated talks between Serbs and ethnic Albanians to determine the future status of Kosovo.
The negotiations were set to start in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday. The ethnic Albanian majority wants full independence, but Serbs want Kosovo to remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia after the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The conflict drew in the United States in 1999, when America and its NATO allies launched a bombing campaign against Serbia to halt a Serb government crackdown on ethnic Albanians.
Called the "Gandhi of the Balkans" in an allusion to the Indian leader's epic campaign for his nation's independence, Rugova was elected the province's first president in 2002. A chain smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in September.
He maintained regular meetings with Western politicians, insisting on recognition of the province's independence even as he struggled at times to catch his breath.
"He carried his battle with cancer with great dignity and courage until his last breath," Rugova spokesman Muhamet Hamiti said. "He was surrounded by his family, personal physician and American physicians who were treating him."
Tearful staff, bodyguards and neighbors gathered outside Rugova's home. Pristina's streets were empty, with people glued to their radios and television screens. The flag at his residence in Pristina was lowered to half staff and television stations switched to playing classical music.
"He put us on a right path and taught us to be patient. With his wisdom we have gained this freedom," said retired Pristina resident Jonuz Gashi, his voice shaking.
Serbs in the province and in Serbia insist the province that they view as the cradle of their culture remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced what remained of Yugoslavia. Ethnic Albanians in the province — a 90 percent-plus majority — demand full independence.
With his trademark scarf wrapped around his neck, Rugova had cult status for some of his ethnic group. He was the living symbol of their demand for independence from Serbia since the early 1990s, when he led the nonviolent struggle against Serbian repression under Slobodan Milosevic, then-president of Yugoslavia.
Rugova won international respect through the peaceful nature of his opposition to Serb dominance, in contrast with other Kosovo Albanians now in leadership positions, who were part of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army that fought Serb troops.
Adelina, a 34-year-old economist who would not give her surname, said Rugova's death clouds the province's future.
"It is a great loss. There is insecurity to come. With him there was stability because people trusted him," she said.
The party he created, the Democratic League of Kosovo, is faction-ridden. The party is in a coalition with the smaller Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, led by former rebel commander Ramush Haradinaj, who has been indicted for war crimes by a U.N. court in The Hague, Netherlands.
The head of parliament, Nexhat Daci, is expected to be named acting president until the parliament chooses a new leader.