Senior officers of the ethnic Albanian rebel force that fought for Kosovo's independence from Yugoslavia formed a new political party this week, signaling the group's intention to try to dominate the political leadership of the province after elections are held next spring.
The move is in accordance with appeals made by the United States and its Western allies that the rebels in the Kosovo Liberation Army give up their guns, join the legal process in Kosovo and pursue their independence goal by peaceful means.
But the move was a surprise to the Clinton administration because the new party's leader is not Hashim Thaqi, a senior rebel officer and prime minister of a provisional ethnic Albanian government. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and her aides have been cultivating Thaqi as an ally for the past five months.
The Party of Democratic Union was founded instead by Bardhyl Mahmuti, a former political prisoner in Yugoslavia who spent much of the past decade helping funnel arms and money to the KLA from his home in Vevey, a small town in Switzerland. His political platform calls for economic integration with the West, Western-style educational reforms, enhanced women's rights, and an end to any ethnic discrimination -- all concepts likely to appeal to Western nations interested in promoting democracy here.
But Mahmuti, like many other KLA officers, has also said the ethnic Albanians who compose the majority population in Kosovo should insist on forming their own National Guard. The idea of creating such a military force in Kosovo, which formally remains a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia, is anathema to Germany, Greece, and other NATO members that oppose granting Kosovo's eventual independence.
But Mahmuti's party already has the support of at least four KLA regional commanders and might appeal to other guerrillas who want their group to persist in some military form.
"The nucleus of the KLA should be the base of the future army of Kosova," Mahmuti said, using the Albanian term for the province. Although he supports an agreement reached between Thaqi and NATO that calls for the KLA's demilitarization within three months, Mahmuti said "we will never have stability in this region . . . if people who have gone through so much suffering and massacres do not have a hope of security" when NATO forces eventually depart.
Mahmuti was arrested after scuffling with Yugoslav police during 1981 demonstrations held by ethnic Albanians to protest widespread discrimination by Serbs in Kosovo. Convicted of publicly endorsing an independent Kosovo republic and participating in counterrevolutionary activities, he was imprisoned by the Belgrade Communist government from 1981 to 1988.
He fled to Switzerland a year and a half after his release, when two of his close friends were executed and obtained a master's degree in political science there while playing a key role in the formation of a clandestine political group known as the People's Movement of Kosova. The illegal group orchestrated activities by guerrillas inside Kosovo who attacked Serbian police in an effort to make them leave the province.
Now that the war is over, Mahmuti said, "it's totally possible to live with Serbs, but totally impossible to live with the Serb regime" in Belgrade. His party platform calls for battling against "institutionalized totalitarianism," but he said he actually wants to promote the "conflict of ideas, not conflicts between people." He also said he wants Kosovo's relationship with the United States to be "correct."
Mahmuti did not rule out an eventual alliance with Thaqi, who was selected prime minister during the Western-led negotiations over Kosovo in France, last winter -- talks from which Mahmuti was excluded by Thaqi because he did not reside in Kosovo then. But he said that Thaqi, a former student activist and guerrilla in Kosovo, has not developed a concrete political plan yet.