Rugova died of lung cancer on Saturday without seeing his dream of independence fulfilled, leaving the province's political scene in disarray at the most sensitive moment since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999. He was 61.
The U.N.-administered province was to embark within days on delicate negotiations for a solution to its disputed final status — a process the ethnic Albanian majority hoped would end in full independence.
Serbs in the province and in Serbia view Kosovo as the cradle of their culture and insist it stay part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced what remained of Yugoslavia.
Rugova had been at the center of Kosovo's politics for more than 15 years, winning international respect with his peaceful opposition to the autocratic former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.
The Sorbonne-educated linguist and professor of Albanian literature was a well-known writer when his path to prominence began in the late 1980s. Speaking out at a writers' forum, he confronted his Serb colleagues with demands for equal rights for his backward province and its ethnic Albanian majority.
Cracks were appearing in the old Yugoslavia and its ideal of ethnic coexistence and the first shots of the wars that would unravel the country were about to be fired.
As Milosevic's grip on the province tightened, Rugova was chosen to lead the Democratic League of Kosovo, putting him at the helm of the largest independence movement.
Popular among most ethnic Albanians, Rugova wanted to be perceived as a modest leader coming from the ranks of ordinary people, but his lifestyle sometimes drew criticism.
He lived in a sprawling villa in one of Pristina's affluent neighborhoods. For years he traveled in bulletproof cars, surrounded by bodyguards. Little was known of the process of decision-making within the party.
Rugova had many enemies. He was despised by Serbs and ethnic Albanian radicals — particularly former fighters — who held deep grudges against him for failing to support the rebel KLA.
Bombs were hurled at his residence and he escaped an apparent assassination attempt in March 2005 when a remote-controlled explosive hidden went off damaging his car.
His popularity was shaken in 1998 when ethnic Albanians began an armed rebellion against Serb forces, triggering two years of fighting that killed an estimated 10,000 people. The war stopped when NATO launched air strikes and forced Serbia to relinquish control over the province.
His appearance alongside Milosevic urging a stop to the bombing at the height of the conflict — when about 1 million ethnic Albanians were forced from their homes — dealt a blow to his image. During the NATO bombing he traveled to Italy and did not return until afterward, leading to accusations of cowardice.
Explaining his actions years later, Rugova said Serb security forces had forced him to appear in public and denounce the NATO bombing campaign or face dire "consequences."
Rugova nonetheless shot back into the political scene after the end of the bloodshed, winning all the elections he contested. He testified against Milosevic at the U.N. tribunal in May 2002 where the former Yugoslav leader faced war crimes charges.
Even after Rugova was diagnosed with cancer, he held regular meetings with Western politicians, insisting on independence even as he struggled at times to catch his breath.
Rugova is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.