Published in the Peace Newsletter, May 1999

Kosovar Nonviolence Struggle Lacked International Support

By Andy Mager


How did we reach this point?

• hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovars driven from their homes

• hundreds, perhaps thousands killed, villages burned

• bombings and dislocation throughout Serbia

• up to $4 billion wasted by our government alone

Kosova, in southern Yugoslavia, was granted autonomy in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. In the 1970s and 80s Kosova's Albanian-controlled administration adopted policies to overturn decades of Serbian domination--bilingualism (instead of just Serbo-Croatian) in the administration, reducing Serbian privilege in employment and increasing Albanian language education.

The Serbian backlash against those policies, similar to reactions against affirmative action in this country, led to the rise of Slobodan Milosevic as Serbia's strongman.

It is important to note that Kosovo is seen by Serbs as their Jerusalem. As a result, Milosevic’s goal has always been to alter the facts on the ground--getting Albanians out and moving Serbs in.


Kosova Nonviolent Resistance

In November 1988, Kosovar miners marched to defend autonomy and despite cold and snow, some 400,000 people joined their march toward Pristina.

After Milosovic annuled Kosova's autonomy the following year, some 7,000 miners shut themselves in their mines--at least 1,200 of them on hunger strike.

The repression escalated, including the dismissal of at least 70% of employed Albanians. The Albanian-language school curriculum was forbidden, a measure that Albanian teachers defied, resulting in their dismissal. Funds for Albanian-language education were eliminated and Albanians were kicked out of the University and all but two secondary schools in Kosova.

Despite a strong tradition of armed resistance among Albanians in Kosova, Serbian acts of aggression were met by a nonviolent response. The police force--greatly expanded and consisting almost entirely of Slavs--engaged in random acts of violence, raiding villages to intimidate the population by beating and humiliating Kosovars.

Out of this repression, a more well-defined nonviolent movement began to emerge. The most visible leader of that movement was the writer and intellectual Ibrahim Rugova.

Rugova and the Democratic League of Kosova, which he continues to lead, had a threefold strategy:

* refusal to be provoked

* maintenance of life in Kosova through parallel institutions

* lobbying for international support

Other key organizations included the Council for Defense of Human Rights and the Youth Parliament.

One important organizing tool in the first half of 1990 was the petition "For Democracy, Against Violence". By the time it was taken to the United Nations in June, there were 400,000 signatures--almost half the adult Albanian population of Kosova.

Increasingly, in view of the high costs of large street protests, Kosovars turned to forms of nonviolent "semi-resistance"--symbolic protests with a low risk of repression. In February and March 1990 thousands of people put candles in their windows or balconies. They would mark an incident by observing "days of sorrow": at an agreed hour factories would sound their whistles and drivers their car horns. Throughout the year, they held five minute protests in the streets--"homages" to the victims of Serbian terror.

In addition to the efforts to assert Albanian rights, a campaign of internal reconciliation was initiated that year when a group of students began going to rural villages to facilitate the resolution of deadly family feuds. Some 2,000 families were reconciled in this manner.

In the summer of 1990, the Kosova Assembly declared Kosova a republic, granting themselves the right to secede from Yugoslavia. After Serb authorities locked them out of their building, the proceedings continued on the street outside.

On June 13, 1991, some 40,000 people (some reports estimate 100,000) took part in the "Quiet Burial of Violence".

Kosovar delegates to the provincial Assembly met on September 22, 1991 to call a referendum: "Should Kosova be a sovereign and independent state?" (This is the same year as the wars for independence in the republics of Slovenia and Croatia). Organised clandestinely, the referendum involved 450 polling stations. The plebiscite became a demonstration of national unity, with lines of voters outside the polling stations. Kosovars claim that nearly a million people took part, 87% of registered voters. All but 164 of the valid votes cast supported independence.

Building Alternative Institutions

In addition to protesting Serb dominance via street demonstrations and political action, the Albanian majority also organized an impressive array of alternative institutions to begin running their own society.

In the early 1990s, there was a mass dismissal of Albanian healthcare workers. The first independent clinic, named for Mother Theresa, was opened in Pristina in March 1992. Before the Serbian offensive of 1998, there were 91 clinics, staffed by hundreds of doctors, nurses, and medical students who provided free medical care.

Education is a central question for Kosovars since the Albanian population of Kosova is predominantly young. The expansion of Albanian education in the years of autonomy--especially the University of Pristina--was a source of pride.

At the start of the 1991-92 school year, the authorities moved to exclude Albanians from all schools in Kosova. There were similar scenes all over the province: children, teachers and parents arriving at schools to find armed police blocking their entry. Often there were beatings and detentions. In many places, the protests were repeated day after day.

In January 1992, secondary teaching resumed in private facilities. Elementary and college education also resumed outside the official systems. It is remarkable that some 18,000 teachers and 330,000 pupils continued the educational process.

Albanian Kosovars also organized their own system of voluntary taxation, raising about 70% of the funds needed to run the school s. The remaining funds were raised by a government-in-exile based in Germany.

Fired workers established their own small businesses, with thousands of new businesses being started in the ensuing years.

In 1992, clandestine elections were held for an Albanian parliament and Ibrahim Rugova as elected president.

The Danger of "Passive" Nonviolence

The nonviolent resistance began to stagnate as the Serbian repression continued. After massive demonstrations for education in October 1992, Rugova and the dominant Albanian party, the Democratic League of Kosova, decided that demonstrations were too dangerous. Increasingly they put their faith in lobbying foreign governments. Over time, more Albanians became frustrated with that policy, especially when Kosova was left out of the Dayton Peace Agreement of November 1995. Occasional armed actions claimed by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) began in 1996.

A 1996 agreement to re-open Albanian secondary schools was never implemented. A year later, in the autumn of 1997, when Albanian students announced they were going to demonstrate for their right to education, Rugova--backed by international diplomats--tried unsuccessfully to dissuade them.

The students' first demonstration was a triumph, despite a high level of police violence, which led to condemnation by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch, his first criticism of Serbian policy in Kosova. Another first was that students from Belgrade, with encouragement from the Balkan Peace Team, took up the cause of their Albanian counterparts, coming to Pristina to meet the Albanians (and also Serbs at the state University of Pristina) and observing a second demonstration.

In the winter of 1998, the KLA began to claim control over parts of rural Kosova. This led to escalating violence and eventually to the Serbian scorched-earth policy of burning houses, slaughtering whole families and displacing more than 300,000 people. The catastrophe that nonviolence was designed to avert was happening.

The rise of the Kosova Liberation Army is both a symptom of the lack of progress achieved through nonviolent struggle and also a major factor in limiting the hopes of renewed nonviolent resistance. One of the few hopeful signs is that before the NATO bombings began, the Serbian Orthodox Church was determined to stay and to live in peace. The Orthodox Bishop and a Catholic monsignor drafted a peace statement, affirming that this was not a religious conflict.

Howard Clark, a British peace acitivst and former staffperson of War Resisters International, has identified four alternatives to the "passive" nonviolence of the Democratic League of Kosova. First is the renewal of protest action and nonviolent confrontation. Second, and much less discussed, was trying to reach Serbs through dialogue. Third was talking not only about the need for Kosova's independence (or some form of U.N. protectorate), but also about narrower issues--especially education--and being prepared to discuss other forms of self-government or a transition from the present situation. Fourth was revitalizing community life among the Albanians, who were suffering not just from the Serbian occupation but the bureaucraticization of the independence movement and a lack of economic regeneration. While some efforts were made in each of these areas, none were developed in enough depth.


Bombs Hit Serbian Opposition Too

The NATO bombings have created an extremely difficult position from which to negotiate peace. They have helped to rekindle traditional Serb feelings towards Kosova, and will make it more difficult to find Serbs willing to discuss compromise.

It is always riskier to oppose one’s government during a time of war, particularly when that government can legitimately rally its citizens to oppose foreign aggression. As a result, Serbian activists believe that their efforts to create democracy in Serbia, and to create a more just arrangement with Kosova, have been set back by the NATO bombing.

A Serbian peace activist in Belgrade wrote during the first week of the bombing, "We know that this conspiracy of militarism--global and local--dangerously reduces our space and soon there won't be this space. (How to denounce global militarism without denouncing the local? How to denounce the bombings, without denouncing the massacres, the repression?) With the horror the people of Kosova are living with, this NATO intervention, they are paying a price even greater than before. NATO IN THE SKY, MILOSEVIC ON THE GROUND."


What Can Be Done

In the mid 1990s, Rugova described the effects of the nonviolent efforts on Albanian Kosovars "Oppressed, but organised... This is the first time that [Albanians] feel that they have a power ... that they feel citizens, despite the occupation... With our organisation, we are active, not for war but for something else. We have this internal, psychological freedom, and these are the first steps towards physical freedom and, one day, collective freedom"

Unfortunately as the efforts inside Kosova stagnated, the expected international support didn’t materialize. The world was focussed on the wars in Crotia and then Bosnia which consistently overshadowed Kosova. We need to take responsibility for not pressuring our government to seek an integrated solution to the Balkan conflicts.

While it is too late to prevent the bloodshed and refugee crisis currently confronting the international community, we can learn from the concerted nonviolent efforts of the Kosovars to act boldly and persistently to move U.S. policy away from increasing military assault to internationally-sanctioned nonviolent intervention when it is necessary to protect human rights.


Andy Mager is a former PNL editor. He got a first-hand glimpse of the Yugoslav military while sleeping on the floor of the bus station in Ljubljana, Slovenia, en route to an International Conscientious Objectors Meeting in 1988. He is deeply indebted to Howard Clark for much of the information in this article.