Kosovo Albanians resist Serbian rule, 1990-1998

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Timing
Time Period:  
January
1990
to
October
1998
Location and Goals
Country: 
Kosovo
Country: 
Serbia
Goals: 
Primarily: defend the rights of the Albanian majority; avoid war; demand independence for Kosovo.

Secondarily: maintain the cohesion of the Albanian community and the way of life in Kosovo, prevent genocide, gain international support.

 

The province of Kosovo enjoyed significant political autonomy (which had been accorded under the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution) and cultural rights until the 1980s, when tension began to build up between the Serbian minority and the Albanians in Kosovo. This tension soon translated into difficult relations between the Serbian regime and the province. When Serbian forces began oppressing Albanians in Kosovo and suppressing their institutions in early 1988, the Albanian population (approximately two million people) mounted an impressive, predominantly nonviolent mass struggle, which continued until 1998 (however, a unitary, committed non-violent strategy was not adopted until 1990).


In November 1988, a group of miners organized the first non-violent action of the campaign aimed at protecting the Kosovo Albanian’s rights: a march to Prishtina, the capital. In February 1989, they held a six-day stay-in strike to protest the Serbian repression targeted at Albanians and Milosevic’s promise to re-Serbianize Kosovo. Milosevic’s newly appointed provincial leaders resigned in order to end the strike. The popular hope that an organized strength of industrial workers could defeat Milosevic inspired mass demonstrations of support both inside Kosovo and in Slovenia and Croatia. Milosevic rejected the resignations, convinced the presidency of Yugoslavia to impose a state of emergency and arrested suspected protest leaders. These actions provoked additional strikes, which the regime repressed by sending every striker a letter threatening arrest or dismissal.


In March 1989, the Kosovo Assembly, coerced by Yugoslav forces, voted for constitutional amendments annulling key aspects of Kosovo’s autonomy. For the rest of 1989, protests started non-violently, but repeatedly degenerated into clashes between the armed police forces and protesters throwing stones or petrol bombs and even using firearms. With about 30 protester lives lost in January 1990, it became obvious that the turn to nonviolence would require greater organization and a persuasive methodology of action.


The context that sparked the attachment to an alternative strategy involved the examples of the miners’ struggle without arms (in 1988 and 1989), the 1989 “velvet revolutions” in Eastern Europe, and the opposition of many Kosovo Albanians (especially young and urban populations) to armed conflict. In December 1989, new Kosovo-wide organizations began forming, such as the non-party Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms (CDHRF) – headed by Adem Demaci (a long-time supporter of non-violent resistance), it became the main monitoring center on human rights violations and police maltreatment - and the Democratic League for Kosovo (LDK) – led by Ibrahim Rugova, it became a national organization counting thousands of members. Although the non-violent struggle is identified primarily with Rugova and the LDK, other individuals and organizations played a vital role in the turn to nonviolence. The LDK and the CDHRF, joined by other organizations such as the Independent Trade Union Federation and a group (including the Youth Parliament) known as the “Kosovo Alternative”, rapidly established themselves as a social and political force. Initially, the LDK did not advocate nonviolence, but soon there was a transformation in popular attitudes. The increasing degree of organization of the non-violent campaign and the negative experience of violent protest helped convey the message that violence would be catastrophic.

The crucial first step in shifting to non-violent methods was exposing the violence of the regime, collecting and publishing evidence, and developing forms of “semi-resistance”, through actions such as lighting candles or organizing “homages” (five-minute work stoppages), noise-making at curfew, and the wearing of armbands and other symbols. Two actions in particular contributed to the strengthening of the non-violent program: the petition “For Democracy, Against Violence” (January 1990) and the “Campaign to Reconcile Blood Feuds” (February 1990). In June 1990, Rugova and the Petition’s initiator, Veton Surroi, presented 400,000 signatures (nearly 40% of the adult population) at the UN in New York, establishing Kosovo’s non-violent credentials internationally. The “Feuds” campaign featured innovative tactics. Students would act as “scouts”, searching for feuds, and then older members of the campaign would arrive to persuade families to participate in public ceremonies of forgiveness “in the name of the people, youth and the flag”. By the end of 1991, over 2,000 feuds had been reconciled. By then, as Ibrahim Rugova declared, nonviolence had become not only a necessity, but a choice.


As Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, the Kosovo Albanians’ demands evolved from defending autonomy (as they had been in the 1988-1989 period) to demanding independence (July 1990). In September 1991, the Kosovo Assembly issued a Declaration of Independence, promptly endorsed by a self-organized referendum (between the 26th and the 30th September). After his meetings with various diplomats, Ibrahim Rugova reported that the international community was concerned about the Serbian-conducted repression and the human rights violations in Kosovo and that it had expressed (through various international officials) its respect for Kosovo’s nonviolence.


In 1994, numerous notable individuals (such as the prime-minister-in-exile Bujar Bukoshi and Adem Demaci) lamented the struggle’s “stagnation”. In 1995, public figures such as LDK’s co-vice-president Hydajet Hyseni and Adem Demaci promoted active nonviolence by using the term repeatedly in their public speeches and supporting its settling in the public consciousness. Not surprisingly given this sustained effort to promote and implement nonviolence as the exclusive strategy of action, protests (which had been suspended in 1992) resumed, featuring actions such as convening the Parliament (summoning MPs to make public appearances and support the campaign’s goals). In April 1996, the LDK Women’s Forum organized a candlelit vigil, to mark the random shooting of an Albanian student in Prishtina. The vigil was the first protest after the 1992 suspension.


Slobodan Milosevic had been pursuing a course of action aimed at drastically reducing Kosovo’s cultural and political autonomy. In 1990, the Serbian regime had imposed a Serb curriculum in all higher education in Kosovo and most leading educational institutions, such as the University of Pristina, had been purged on ethnic grounds (Albanian lecturers were sacked, Albanian students were expelled). Rugova called on the Albanian populace to respond by boycotting the Yugoslav and Serbian states through non-participation in any elections, through ignoring the military draft (compulsory in Yugoslavia), and most importantly, through not paying any taxes or duties to the State. He also called for the creation of a parallel system of Albanian schools, clinics, and hospitals. The authorities closed most of these newly-created institutions.

In September 1996, the university students’ union (UPSUP) proposed a march and various demonstrations to reopen education buildings, but the plans did not materialize. In September 1997, UPSUP urged students to join Prishtina’s evening promenades (“korza”, traditional promenades in which a large proportion of the population took part, heading out into the streets and walking between cafes and around the city with no particular destination, to chat with friends and enjoy the fresh air). Many did, sparking enthusiasm about the planned march to reclaim university buildings. Although Rugova asked the organization not to proceed, they insisted on their rights to education and to protest. UPSUP also received a delegation of diplomats from twelve countries, who urged the students to postpone their protest.


On October 1, 1997, the start of the university year, wearing white shirts and committed to a non-violent code of discipline, 15,000 students marched towards the university. Stopped by police, the front line remained standing to receive baton blows, while those behind stood down. The police attacked the protesters. News of the event was broadcast around the world and Belgrade students – veterans of the anti-Milosevic demonstrations in the winter of 1996-1997 – sent solidarity messages and soon came to Prishtina to support the protests. On October 29, 1997, about 10,000 ethnic Albanian students, holding banners with the words “Kosovo University Now – Tomorrow Will Be Late!” held a peaceful, one-hour rally as a follow-up to the October 1st march that the police had violently crushed. The student protests challenged the LDK’s five-year moratorium on demonstrations, expressing frustration not only with exclusion from proper educational facilities, but also with the passivity of the LDK leadership.


In 1996, a group committed to guerrilla warfare (the Kosovo Liberation Army) had organized attacks against Serbians, which led to a Serbian military offensive involving brutal retaliation. On November 28, 1997, Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) soldiers appeared at a Serbian funeral and attacked those assembled. Adem Demaci proposed to “give political forces one last chance” and proposed a three-month UCK cease-fire, but his call remained unanswered. Conflict escalated until the Drenica massacres in 1998 (which ended non-violent struggle in the rural areas and made UCK a major player), bringing international condemnation of Serb actions. On March 2, 1998, just two days after the killings at Drenica, thousands of ethnic Albanians protested in Prishtina, condemning the escalation of inter-ethnic violence. The protests were brutally crushed by Serbian police forces.


Although international pressure brought a ceasefire in October 1998, all sides expected a conflagration in spring 1999. After a seventy-eight-day NATO bombing of Serbia, several targets in Kosovo, and various locations throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the war ended in June 1999, when Serbia agreed to withdraw its forces and Kosovo was placed under the authority of the UN. The LDK won the 2000 municipal and the 2001 Kosovo assembly elections.


Prudence and patience had been major factors determining the choice and character of non-violent action in Kosovo. However, this choice led to a strategy that became too passive and ultimately failed to avoid war. The policy of nonviolence was relatively successful in achieving three secondary objectives: maintaining the cohesion of the Albanian community and the way of life in Kosovo, preventing war when it was most dangerous (nonviolence allowed the anti-Albanian frenzy of 1989-1990 to abate and created space for international measures meant to prevent war), and winning international support against the regime. Thus, civil resistance in Kosovo might be viewed as a phase preparing more favorable conditions for armed struggle, achieving vital objectives at a time when armed struggle would have been disastrous.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Roberts, Adam and Garton, Ash, Timothy. Civil Resistance and Power Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Carter, April and Clark, Howard. People Power and Protest Since 1945: A Bibliography of Non-Violent Action. London: Housmans Bookshop Limited, 2006.

Maliqi, Shkelzen. Kosova: Separate World: Reflections and Analyses. Peja/Pec: Dukagjini, 1998.

Clark, Howard. Civil Resistance in Kosovo. London: Pluto, 2000

Kostovicova, D. Parallel Worlds: Response of Kosovo Albanians to Loss of Autonomy in Serbia. Keele: European Research Center, 1997.

Maliqi, Shkelzen. “The Albanian Movement in Kosova.” in Dyker, David A. and Vejoda, Ivan. Yugoslavia and After: A Study in Fragmentation, Despair and Rebirth. London: Longman, 1996.

Mertus, Julie. Kosovo: How Truths and Myths Started a War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Waller, Michael, Kyril Drezov. Kosovo: The Politics of Delusion. London: Frank Cass, 2001.

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (20/05/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Adriana Popa, 09/10/2010