Nonviolent struggle in Kosovo

Howard Clark

Kosovo was not an obvious place for a nonviolent struggle. The Kosovo Albanian value system is based on a concept of honour closely linked with weaponry: take away the weapon, goes one saying, and you take away honour--a man's most important possession is his gun. The history is not one of unity but of clan rivalries, not organized collective resistance, but banditry and bloody rebellion. Then, the immediate political conditions seemed to lack many of the key features highlighted in research on nonviolence for effective nonviolent social defense against aggression:

  • Human contact between the aggressors or their agents and the defenders can, at least, inhibit violence and, at best, might lead to desertion and disobedience in the ranks of the aggressor, thus making the 'instruments of oppression' unreliable. By 1989, there was already a strong ethnic polarisation in Kosovo. During the previous decade the Albanians had been the main object of the most intense of the hate campaigns orchestrated by Serbian nationalists.
  • Dependence of the regime on the population, either economically or administratively, increases the power of the population's refusal to cooperate. In this case, the regime did not want anything from the population except for their departure. When miners went on strike to defend the territory's autonomy, there was some optimism that the organised power of workers could stop Miloševic. In fact, they were dismissed and for the next 10 years there was no real industry in Kosovo.
  • Pressure on the regime by 'third parties' can alter the course of events. Initially, Slovenia and Croatia spoke up for Kosovo against Serbia, but they were not willing to be responsible for the part of Yugoslavia most in need of economic subsidies. As Yugoslavia disintegrated, the Albanians looked for international support, but met a powerful international consensus that Kosovo should stay part of what was left of Yugoslavia.

There is always a question about what options nonviolence offers in the face of an extremely ruthless opponent. Many have argued that nonviolence cannot be effective against a genocidal opponent. Genocidal or not, there's no doubting the ruthlessness of the Serb nationalism of this era, nor of Miloševic personally or the Belgrade regime. Rather than this being an argument against nonviolence, however, it provided one of the strongest arguments in favour. Kosovo Albanian analysts were convinced that the regime wanted to provoke a war in Kosovo, a crusade that would rally the Serbian people but also a situation in which without inhibitions it could ethnically cleanse Kosovo.

Objectives for nonviolence

In this situation what could be achieved? First, let me distinguish between long-term goals or aspirations and what have been called the 'functional objectives' of a strategy of nonviolent struggle. The principal objectives of the Kosovo Albanians were essentially 'defensive' - to stop the [Miloševic] regime from unleashing its most extreme violence and to maintain their own society. The ultimate goal was independence.

The first objective in this social struggle was maintaining the Albanian community and way of life in Kosovo. Because the population is predominantly young--about half are under 21 years old--education was central to the struggle. Rather than teach the new Serbian curriculum ordained by Belgrade, Albanian teachers continued to teach the Albanian curriculum adopted in the years of autonomy. When Belgrade stopped paying the teachers, they continued teaching until, after several months, police went to the schools and shut out teachers and pupils. After weeks of daily demonstrations outside every school, teachers and parents began organising classes in private premises and the parallel school system began - a system with perhaps 20,000 teachers and 300,000 pupils.

The second objective was preventing war. Chiefly, this meant refusing to be provoked to violence. This goal was not highlighted when the nonviolent struggle began; with the miners' actions in 1988 and 1989. There was no concensus on this strategy in 1989, when the founders of the Democratic League for Kosova (LDK) contemplated the sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives for Kosovo's 'freedom.' However, early in 1990, nonviolence became a consistent policy. Initially this policy meant not just passive refusal, but included a commitment to 'name the violence.' One common form of demonstration were 'homages' in which people would stop working (or whatever they were doing) to join a five-minute promenade in the city center to mark a particular act of brutality. The most vital element of this work was rapid response and documentation. Whenever the police raided a village or a similar incident occurred, organizers from the Democratic League of Kosova (the LDK) or the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms (CDHRF) would go to the scene to document the evidence and explain why there should not be a violent response.

The third objective was winning international support against the regime, trusting that international pressure would put a brake on Miloševic.

These three objectives defined the basic framework of struggle. In addition, there were particular contests that can be decisive in nonviolent struggle. One is the contest over legitimacy. On the negative side, Albanians denied legitimacy to the Belgrade regime, for instance, by boycotting the census and elections. On the positive side, they sought to vest legitimacy in Kosovar institutions, a task achieved partly by demonstrating continuity with the previous system. For example, the elected Assembly representatives, locked out of the Assembly building, stood on its steps in 1990 to declare the Republic of Kosovo. Then, demonstrations of popular will confirmed the Republic's legitimacy by holding an illegal referendum to assert Kosovo's independent status and illegal elections for a parliament. Both events, in autumn 1991 and spring 1992, respectively, attracted the participation of virtually all the Albanian voters in Kosovo and some minorities such as Muslim Slavs and Turks.

A second contest--some would argue the most important contest in nonviolent struggle--is the battle of wills between the regime and the population. Central to this struggle is building up the social solidarity of the population and awakening a sense of their own strength--a process we might call social empowerment. Initially, this process involved forming new organisations like the LDK and the CDHRF, plus independent trade unions, the League of Albanian Women, and the humanitarian network of Mother Theresa. Finding forms of action that showed defiance without demanding a high cost was also important. In 1990, these actions included signing a petition For Democracy, Against Violence (nearly half the adult population signed) and the rattling keys in tins at the start of the curfew to symbolize that Kosovar Albanians had the key to their own future.

For an influential minority within the movement, empowerment also involved reform of some of the worst patriarchal traditions of their own society. The most spectacular campaign in this regard involved the mass reconciliation of blood feuds. An estimated 17,000 young men were under threat from blood feud. During a two-year campaign carried out from 1990-92 by about 500 students and a few eminent older people, there were approximately 2,000 ceremonies of reconciliation. In these ceremonies, aggrieved families (those whose turn it was to kill) 'pardoned the blood,' doing so 'in the name of youth, the people and the flag.' Virtually no blood feuds continued. In the early days of the nonviolent movement, there was a general effort to move away from patriarchal traditions and to become 'modern Europeans.' Movements like the blood feuds reconciliation campaign or the enthusiasm of volunteers in women's literacy programs kindled popular hope not only that things were changing, but also that they could play a part in shaping their own futures. To some extent, they saw themselves as another example of the popular nonviolence that had brought down the Berlin wall.

The movement stagnates

From 1989 to 1993, the movement was largely successful. The parallel school system became well established and no longer confined to private premises: they regained the use of primary school buildings. A voluntary taxation system with some 1,000 tax collectors who worked without pay and at great personal risk raised the funds to pay school costs like teachers' salaries. A network of health clinics named after Mother Theresa offered free medical treatment.

Although Albania was the only state to recognize Kosovo's independence, the nonviolent struggle ensured a general international acknowledgement that the source of violence in Kosovo was the Miloševic regime. There were widespread denunciations of Serbian human rights abuses in Kosovo and, in 1992, the CSCE (the forerunner of the OSCE) set up what was intended to be a permanent mission to Kosovo, Vojvodina and the Sandzak. Many Kosovo Albanian men left the region, either to avoid the draft or to earn money to send home, but it was a great success that their families usually stayed in Kosovo and that many able people preferred to stay and see what they could contribute to their society and their struggle, instead of going abroad. In the early 1990s, almost everything was interpreted in terms of the social struggle. Even the thousands of small businesses that opened (mostly mini-markets or pizzerias) were evidence of the people's resilience. It was great for morale that the shops in Kosovo were usually better stocked than those in Belgrade because Albanians were so adept at trading and smuggling.

There was enthusiasm for nonviolence. Even some football clubs changed their names to show it. The general feeling was that time was on their side.

The sentiment changed because of external factors, like the war in Bosnia and the failure of foreign governments to act on the Kosovars' concerns, and because of internal factors. Internally, Kosovo needed a strategy and modes of organization that empowered the people whether external events developed favourably or not. Instead, the dominant form of organization became the dead hand of the LDK--an undemocratic organization that increasingly seemed more interested in controlling Kosovo Albanians than in social struggle. Meanwhile the main resistance action (maintaining the schools) became routine (with interruptions during Serbian repression). The leverage for change that people saw narrowed to LDK leader Ibrahim Rugova's lobbying of international diplomats. Having the population wait for international opinion to take effect was a recipe for stagnation. Where there had been a sense of empowerment, frustration began to surface by the mid-1990s. By 1997, it was quite common for people to talk of a 'loss of hope.'

Unfortunately, the policy of refusing to be provoked was taken to the extreme of avoiding any confrontation, including nonviolent protest. The teachers' union and the LDK put a moratorium on further demonstrations after the police brutality against the autumn 1992 education demonstrations. At the time, I saw the sense of this decision: the police behaved as if demonstrations were an invitation to beat Albanians at random. Also, there was a case for conserving energy and using the power of demonstrations with careful timing for maximum impact. But the LDK tried to block every demonstration for the next five years! The balance between self-restraint and patience on the one hand and willingness to engage in confrontation on the other was lost.

In a particularly noteworthy failure to take assertive action Rugova did not try to convene the 'parliament' after the police blocked its first attempt to meet. If holding elections in 1992 had been empowering, this popular power seemed more illusory each year that the parliament failed to meet. Convening it could have been a classic 'dilemma demonstration,' forcing Miloševic to let it meet or make the regime look bad by repressing it. The risks for the population would have been limited: the prime targets for repression would be just 130 people--the deputies elected to serve their people.

A second problem was that the parallel school system, the most extensive of the parallel institutions, became something that merely existed for its own sake, and not a base for further development. Indeed, the LDK itself neglected the need for self-organised constructive activity after the early years. Initiatives outside the LDK, like the Mother Theresa network and some small groups (mostly women's groups), showed that there was potential, but the LDK did little to counter the attitude that 'we can't do anything to improve our own daily life because of the Serbs'.

A third problem was that few people were interested in trying to influence Serbian opinion on Kosovo. As the majority in Kosovo, many Albanians wanted simply to overrule Serb desires and outlast Serb efforts to regain Kosovo for Serbia. Some scepticism toward the Serbian opposition was justified, but at the level of values it was important for Albanians to accept that today's enemies were yesterday and tomorrow's neighbours. At the level of strategy, Galtung's concept of 'the great chain of nonviolence' offered some long term prospects for influencing the regime. The theory behind the chain of nonviolence is that links with elements in the antagonist society benefit the oppressed society. Even if initial links are marginal, they connect with others in their society, reducing the social distance between oppressor and oppressed community. Ultimately, the links create a constituency that can wield influence in the oppressor society.

In my book, Civil Resistance in Kosovo, I discuss possible ways in which Kosovo Albanians could have had a strong strategy of empowerment, including forms of remobilization and constructive program as well as altering Serbian will. The discussion there is based largely on small initiatives that, with more active coordination, could have been taken up more widely. There is one real-life and large-scale example that exemplifies the undeveloped potential of nonviolence in Kosovo--the student protests of 1997.

UPSUP, the students' union, wanted to organise protests at the start of the 1996-97 academic year, but had been dissuaded by Rugova, who had just signed an 'agreement' on education. When there was no progress in the following year, UPSUP decided to go ahead with their protest plans. They began with a 'tester' action. In September, they urged students to join the evening promenades, the korzo, common in the region. More than only students responded and these evening strolls generated excitement and expectation that, at last, something was going to happen.

Rugova summoned the UPSUP leadership to ask them not to proceed: Serbian elections were due and it would suit some candidates to attack the protests. The UPSUP leaders replied that they had not only the right to education but also the right to demand it. They were going ahead. Then the UPSUP leaders were visited by a delegation of 12 high-level international diplomats from Belgrade who made the same argument as Rugova. This visit merely confirmed that UPSUP had found a way to get Kosovo on the international agenda.

UPSUP took enormous care to ensure nonviolent discipline for a march, which proceeded from the hill where the parallel university held most of its classes to the university buildings from which the students were excluded. Only students and their teachers marched, but the streets were lined with thousands of supporters. At the bottom of the hill, Serbian police waited with all their paraphernalia of repression. For about 45 minutes the first row of marchers stood facing the police, refusing the police order to disperse. Then the police attack began, and the students still remained nonviolent--the marchers struggled to hold their ground as the blows rained down on them.

Later that day Rugova and the international diplomats all applauded the students for their nonviolent courage in the face of police brutality. Thanks to the Balkan Peace Team, a few Serbs from inner Serbia came to Prishtina to observe. Soon the Belgrade students' unions--veterans of the previous winter's daily demonstrations against Miloševic--sent messages of solidarity supporting UPSUP's demand for the right to education. They also sent their own delegation to support the next demonstration and begin dialogue meetings with UPSUP.

The UPSUP march demonstrated the potential for an empowering and nonviolent remobilization. Unfortunately, Kosova Liberation Army was becoming more active at the same time and, when the Serbian security forces responded with a military offensive--committing atrocities and mass murders--a decisive turn was taken for war.

For all its flaws, for eight years of Kosovo Albanian commitment to nonviolence created the opportunity for international action to prevent war--a phenomenal achievement. In 1997, a number of analysts believed that the elite in Serbia were ready to 'lose' Kosovo. Some of those who had fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism seemed resigned to their failure to re-Serbianize Kosovo and they looked for alternatives. Sadly, the armed 'threat' of the KLA changed all that and allowed Miloševic to unleash his campaign of ethnic cleansing.

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 24 May 2010 - 03:13


This is an excellent and truly helpful essay in terms of lost opportunities for empowerment of and sustainance of a nonviolent social movement. The lessons here are profound for any engaged in social change. One thought that perhaps is covered in Mr. Clark's book (which I look forward to picking up), the KLA was armed by the US. This escalated the violence within the conflict and provided Milosevic the pretext (if he really needed one) to unleash genocide.