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Civil Society and the Kosovo Crisis 1981-1999


Ken Simons, “Civil Society and the Kosovo Crisis, 1981-1999”. In Metta Spencer ed. The Lessons of Yugoslavia, New York: JAI/Elsevier 2000.

When the Yugoslav wars of secession began in 1991, the formerly autonomous province of Kosovo had already gone through more than a decade of social and political upheaval. Since 1987, this upheaval had been characterized by open repression of the majority Albanian population by the officials and security forces of the Republic of Serbia.1

Nevertheless, it took another seven years before the Kosovo conflict was transformed into a fully militarized war, involving first the rebel Kosova Liberation Army (KLAUÇK in Albanian) and eventually, after the failure of the Rambouillet talks, the armed forces of the NATO powers.

What happened in the meantime, and how did the majority-Albanian population manage to avoid going down the road of open warfare for so long? The answer is a complex and at times deceptive one — that the primary response to increased repression by the Serbian state was one of non-violent resistance and non-cooperation, but that this strategy was itself inflexible and arbitrarily administered. Moreover, there was no place within the strategy for dialogue with minorities within Kosovo, an omission which continues to have damaging long-term results.

At the same time, however, the parallel government did build a sense of social unity and gave Kosovar society the strength to break with destructive and divisive traditions, most notably in the successful 1990-92 campaign to end blood feuds.

This part of the Kosovo story — the success of non-violence in holding a community together in resistance, but its failure to adapt to changing internal and external factors — is one which has not been fully explored by conventional strategic analysts. The evolution of Kosovar politics up to and through the current conflict has been the subject of several recent studies; there are important lessons to be learned both about the particularity of the Kosovo conflict and about the wider field of strategic non-violence.2


The period leading up to Marshal Tito’s death in 1980 was one of optimism for politically active and educated Albanians in Kosovo. The province’s League of Communists, formerly a stronghold of the Serbian minority, had gone through a rapid Albanianization since the 1971 constitutional reforms. The proportion of Albanians in the public sector increased, notably in the police force — formerly almost wholly Serbian — but also in the education, health, and judicial sectors. A quota system limited Montenegrins and Serbs — 20.9% of the province’s population in 1971 — to 20% of the jobs.3

The quota system led to widespread dismissals of Kosovo Serbs (and Montenegrins), who were also handicapped by being unable to speak or read Albanian. The Serbian government in Belgrade made its unease public as early as 1977, with the commissioning of a document known as the ‘Blue Book’.4 This catalogue of arguments against provincial autonomy received no formal sanction or public discussion, but provided the basis for the far more systematic and ultimately successful campaign against autonomy in the 1980s.

The local party leadership was clearly committed to strengthening Albanian culture, including the renewal of cultural links with Enver Hoxha’s Albania, still isolationist during this period but moving away from its unlikely alliance with the People’s Republic of China. Nonetheless, it failed to strengthen the local economy — one of the failures in Yugoslavia’s ‘worker self-management’ system was that there was no mechanism for ensuring that less-developed regions diversified their economies, and that regional planning tended to be haphazard and short-term.

In March 1981, students frustrated with overcrowding and bad food at the university had begun a protest which quickly turned into massive street protests, which spread to other cities in the province and occasionally degenerated into riots. The unifying slogan at most demonstrations was ‘Kosovo republic’ — that is, a Kosovar republic within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

After two months, the protests stopped after tear gas was used against a university sit-in, the university itself was closed, and students were ordered home.

Similar protests in Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia began to be infused with the identity politics of those republics’ dominant groups. But Kosovo differed from the northern republics in an important sense. A non-Slav people, the Kosovar Albanians were considered ineligible for republican status within Yugoslavia because an Albanian state already existed outside the country; therefore the Albanian ‘nationality’ was not a ‘nation’ in the Yugoslav sense of the word. This condition also fed fears of irredentism; near the end of the 1981 riots there were indeed isolated incidents of pro-irredentist (that is, pro-Tirana) slogans being shouted or displayed.

Had the Enver Hoxha government been involved in fomenting the unrest in Kosovo? For a complex of reasons — including the fear that a united Albania would be dominated by the politically more sophisticated Kosovars — successive governments in Tirana have had little interest in unification with Kosovo,5 but the willingness of Albanian governments to use Kosovo for their own ends, and of Kosovar, Serb, and Yugoslav politicians to play the Greater Albania card, is a continuing problem.


In July 1990, the doors to the provincial legislative building were locked and the assembly, which had a two-thirds Albanian majority, dissolved. This was the culmination of a large-scale campaign over the preceding two years to remove control of key institutions from local elected officials, at the same time firing ethnic Albanians en masse. The education and health systems were particularly badly hit. Health care in Yugoslavia was dependent on social insurance contributions; dismissed workers were deemed to be outside the system, so 750,000 Albanians were now unable to seek treatment. Those who still qualified for treatment were often reluctant to do so for fear that Serbian doctors would maltreat them; pregnant women were particularly unwilling to trust the government clinics.6 Parents refused to have their children immunized after rumors spread that the vaccinations had been doctored to cause sterility.

Albanian health professionals set up private clinics as a stopgap measure. The Mother Teresa clinics — named for the ethnic-Albanian nun from Macedonia but unconnected with her religious order — covered most of the country but facilities were often inadequate. Moreover, treatment was not free.

The Serbian state authorities still provided primary school classes in Albanian, but the secondary school curriculum was now taught only in Serbian. Initially, some schools tolerated the use of their classrooms after hours by the excluded Albanian teachers and their Albanian-speaking students, but by 1993 this was impossible. Classes moved into private homes, vacant buildings, or other locations, where they were regularly broken up by police.

Albanian-language textbooks were systematically confiscated, making it more difficult for teachers to deliver anything more than the most rudimentary lessons. Albanian-language press and radio outlets were closed. Albanians once again experienced random police searches of their homes, ostensibly for weapons. If no weapons were found, they were beaten up. This technique had been used before in Kosovo, in particular in the 1950s; some Albanians at that time even bought guns and left them out in plain view so that the police would find them and not have an excuse to inflict a beating.

The political and cultural disenfranchisement of the Albanians of Kosovo was more or less complete by late 1990. The patterns of institutionalized repression, guaranteed by an all-Serb police force which answered to Belgrade, remained in place throughout the next decade. Disappearances, random attacks, and assassinations were common, and together with the lack of job opportunities and a contracting economy, led many Albanians to emigrate to Western Europe or North America.

The direct response to political disenfranchisement was the formation of a parallel administration — the government of the ‘Republic of Kosovo’, based initially on members of the provincial assembly who had been locked out in July 1990 — and the simultaneous non-recognition of the institutions of Serbian or Yugoslav power in the province. The parallel government administered education, health, and other public services, collecting a modest tax from every Kosovar Albanian family (who were, however, still liable to pay taxes to Serbia as well). It also gave an additional measure of legitimacy to the Kosovar cause — it was not a ‘government in exile’ but a functioning, if illegal, administration within the province itself.

The 1992 London Conference on former-Yugoslavia was attended by a delegation of Kosovars led by Ibrahim Rugova.7 The limitations of the parallel government strategy were immediately apparent in the reception given the Kosovars at this meeting. Not only did they fail to be recognized as a national delegation on a par with the former republic delegations (in fact, as an observer group they had to follow the plenaries on closed-circuit television in a sideroom),8 but the potential for serious conflict in Kosovo was scarcely mentioned in the conference.

The LDK continued to try to raise awareness of Kosovo’s situation at international fora, in the media, and in representations to governments. Some progress was made around the need for NGO and media monitoring of the repression, and small NGO efforts began within the province. It was not until 1996 that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the most credible para-governmental human rights monitoring body, began work in Kosovo, so the presence of non-governmental bodies, even those which were unable to remain for extended periods, was all the more important.

Some outside NGOs expressed frustration over the LDK’s reluctance to establish dialogue with moderate Kosovo Serbs. It is, however, true that any such dialogue would have been premature without extensive preparation on both sides. Even by 1996-97, it was less dangerous for Kosovo Albanians to seek contact with opposition groups in Serbia proper than with members of the Kosovo Serb community. Belgrade-based NGOs which became involved in human rights monitoring and mediation during this later period did so on the basis of established trust with groups (most, but not all, of them independent of the LDK) in Kosovo.


In the late 1980s, blood feuds were still endemic to the Albanian-speaking regions, including Kosovo. Up to 17,000 Kosovar Albanian men were at risk of death or injury because of recent or long-standing grievances against their families by members of another clan or family.9

The Serbian crackdown in Kosovo gave a new impetus to attempts to end the feuds and the divisive attitudes which they represented. Students from the city of Pec, horrified when colleagues were killed by feuding clans in the late 19808, called on the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms, the main human-rights group in the province.

The Council launched a concerted campaign — the ‘Year of Reconciliation’ — in 1990, but continued with follow-up work through to 1992. Teams of volunteers visited village families, returning as many times as was necessary, to persuade them to absolve the blood debts on their men by issuing a statement ‘pardoning the blood’. While the volunteers were often young people, there was always at least one visit by elders, and often by Anton Çetta, the legendary ethnologist who headed the campaign.

The besa, or word of honour which ended the feud, was given publicly at a ceremonial meeting. The largest of these ceremonies, on the plain of Decani in May 1990, attracted between 100,000 and 500,000 people from all parts of the Albanian-speaking world.

Police frequently harassed the participants and spectators at the ceremonies. In August 1990, Serbian authorities banned all large gatherings in Kosovo, breaking up one reconciliation ceremony at Pec in the west.

After the ban on public demonstrations, activities continued in private houses and so forth. Not all feuds were settled, but the tradition of retribution had been largely laid to rest, and positive traditions (for instance, “it is the Strong who pardons the Weak”) were emphasized in its place.10


After the 1995 Dayton agreement, a UN preventive mission was deployed to Macedonia, in part because of the widely held expectation that Kosovo would erupt into a one-, two- or multi-sided war. Kosovo was itself not viewed as a containable struggle, despite the best efforts of Rugova and the LDK, which had lobbied foreign ministries intensively during the three-year period between London and Dayton.

By removing the Serbian militaries and paramilitaries from combat but not disarming them or otherwise attenuating their fighting capacities, the Dayton Accord increased the odds that Kosovo would be the scene of the next war in the Balkans.

Education remained a contentious issue, and one which often took on a highly symbolic role; education had, after all, been central to the 1981 and 1987-88 protests in the province, and the parallel schools were a visible gesture of defiance against Serbian exclusionism and repression. But the parallel schools were increasingly a liability for the LDK; while most Albanians were reconciled to the necessity of the parallel school system in the short term,11 once the first year had passed there was concern for the long-term effects of a substandard and under-supplied education system. Talks on reopening the state system to Albanian-speakers began in 1993, but there was little progress until 1997-98.

In the summer and autumn of 1997, students at the University of Pristina attempted to take the initiative in refocusing discontent with continued Serbian repression and intransigence by holding public protests. The LDK advised student leaders against taking a more activist stance — ‘active non-violence’ in contrast to the institutionalized passive resistance of the parallel government — but the protests went ahead anyway. Elaborate preparations were made to ensure that non-violent principles were respected and only agreed slogans and demands were used; while the student demonstrations were focused on the education issue, they also attempted to redirect the wider civil struggle for rights and against police repression.

Prior to the 29 October demonstration, student leaders had meetings with Belgrade student groups, themselves engaged in a sustained protest against the Milosevic regime. There were hopes that the Pristina students would change the rhythm of political struggle in Kosovo, but these hopes were dealt a blow when the KLA made its first public appearance, at the funeral of a murdered teacher, in December of that year.

There was, however, another important change in Kosovar civil society politics, and one which clearly had more of an effect on post-war political alignments in the province than the student protests. Journalists have occupied prominent positions both in the leadership and as dissenters within Kosovar political institutions; but from 1991 to 1996 there was no daily press in which their positions could be set out.

Somewhat ironically, a privatization drive in Serbia was responsible for reviving independent media in Kosovo. Private publishing companies were permitted in Serbia and its provinces, although the state still had control over the licensing of new titles. In 1996, a license was granted to Koha Ditore, a tabloid-style daily newspaper, defiantly opposed to Belgrade but also independent of Rugova and the LDK. The core of its staff were young journalists and political activists who had been involved in the formerly dominant Rilindja publishing house and with the LDK. An entertaining and politically engaged paper was thus able to provide an alternative locus of power to the LDK, at the same time becoming the dominant media voice in the province.

Koha Ditore gave extensive and supportive coverage to the student opposition movements of 1996-97 and — somewhat more controversially — to the post-1996 armed resistance.

There was no organized paramilitary force operating on the Kosovar Albanian side between the mid-1980s and 1995. This is remarkable given the events in Bosnia and Croatia during this period, the continued repression by the Serbian police and the federal army after 1990-91, and the presence of Serbian paramilitaries (such as Arkan’s Tigers) in Kosovo itself. In essence, there was a high degree of discipline both inside and outside the LDK to avoid any organized violence which would give Belgrade a rationale for violently suppressing all dissent in the province.

Isolated guerrilla attacks took place in 1995-96, though there appeared to be no pattern or recognizable command structure. In February 1996, a group called the ‘National Movement for the Liberation of Kosova’ claimed responsibility for attacks on Bosnian and Croatian Serb refugees in Kosovo. The first attacks credited to the ‘Kosova Liberation Army’ followed soon after in late April 1996. Eight Serbian police and civilians were killed in a series of attacks over a few days, apparently in reprisal for the killing of an Albanian student.

The LDK denied knowing anything about what was clearly an emergent guerrilla force, and suggested that the killings (of civilian Serbs and police officers) were a provocation organized from Belgrade. The groups were small, but well-armed with light arms and mortars, and were commanded by veterans of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA).

The KLA soon emerged as the most important of these forces. It was largely organized and financed by the Kosovar Albanian community in Western Europe, particularly Germany. Donations from diaspora sources, which included both legitimate business and criminal activity, combined with the flood of cheap light weapons from Albania (where armed groups threatened civil war through most of 1997) allowed for rapid growth in the army’s strength. There is no indication that the KLA received funding from Western government sources or was otherwise backed by the West; indeed, the U.S. special envoy to Kosovo in 1998 had labeled the KLA a ‘terrorist organization’.


Throughout 1998 a medium-level war was fought in the rural areas of Kosovo. A February-March offensive by Serbian forces against what were believed to be KLA strongholds in the Drenica region sparked massive protest in the cities and strengthened the political position of the KLA (notwithstanding the lack of a political party identified with the insurgents). The LDK under Rugova was forced into an even stronger pro-independence stance by this growing radicalism, and came under sustained criticism for their long-term strategy as well as for their inflexibility and stratified organizational structures.

By July, the KLA claimed to control one-third of Kosovo, and a pattern of skirmishes, KLA raids and Serbian reprisals had been established. One thing which was missing, however, was an ability to retain control of territory. KLA units knew how to harass but not how to fight a war; moreover, a failure to engage with the Serbian forces led them to strike out at people they identified as ‘collaborators.’

Serbian attacks on villages, under the pretext of flushing out KLA fighters, continued. The massacre at Raak in February 1999 took on crucial importance in that it immediately preceded the Rambouillet talks and the March ultimatum by NATO — which this time was not a bluff.

The forced deportation of nearly half the population, which was concentrated in the first two weeks after the NATO bombings began on 23 March, appeared through its speed and thoroughness to be based on an existing contingency plan. Under cover of war, a far more sweeping clearance of Albanian-majority villages and cities was possible than in the months or years before. Not only were media and human rights observers absent,12 but alternative ‘explanations’ for the refugee flow could be advanced. Official Serbian state media persisted with the explanation that hundreds of thousands of refugees were leaving Kosovo voluntarily, to escape the NATO bombing and KLA violence.13

The non-violent opposition suffered doubly from the NATO intervention — not only were they largely incapable of directing resistance to the Serbian deportations and killings, but those who stayed in Kosovo ran the risk of assassination and capture. Within hours of the NATO bombing, the human rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi was found murdered. Fehmi Agani, elder statesman of the LDK, was killed in early May. Ibrahim Rugova was detained, in circumstances which continue to be unclear, and taken to Belgrade where he was quoted as calling for an end to the NATO bombings and was photographed, clearly uncomfortable, with Milosevic. As clear as it may have been that he was acting under duress, his wartime meetings with the Belgrade government further damaged his already weakened authority.

The Koha Ditore journalists appeared to handle the nightmare of the war rather better than the organized politicians, despite being clearly targeted for arrest or assassination. The day the NATO bombings began, Serbian police shot and killed the paper’s security guard and burnt down the office. Gjeraqina Tahina continued to file reports for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting until her expulsion in early April. Editor Baton Haxhiu escaped in disguise from Pristina later that month, helped in part by reports that he had been killed shortly after the air war began. Working out of Tetovo (an Albanian majority town in Macedonia) he and his staff published a limited edition of the newspaper for distribution to the refugee community. Publisher Veton Surroi, meanwhile, spent the entire 80-day war underground in Pristina. Surroi had been part of the Kosovar delegation at Rambouillet: “As someone who had signed the Rambouillet accords, I felt I had a responsibility to stay,” he explained in a postwar interview.14


At the time of writing, Kosovo was a UN protectorate, still under formal Yugoslav sovereignty but governed by three international bodies: the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), responsible for interim administration; the KFOR military mission, responsible for maintaining security; and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), responsible for organizing elections, supporting an independent media, and drawing up laws. The bodies are interdependent, but have frequently been in conflict with one another as well as with Albanian and Serbian political forces in the province.15

Hashim Thaci, the 29-year-old KLA leader who positioned himself as ‘head of the provisional government’ shortly after UN administration of the province began in June 1999, failed initially to be recognized as the primary voice of the Kosovar resistance, despite the KLA’s somewhat unconvincing disarmament and transformation into a civil police force. Rugova supporters continued to claim equality, if not supremacy, of authority for the LDK and the structures of the pre-1999 parallel administration; opinion polls in October 1999 showed that a large majority of Kosovars would prefer Rugova to Thaci as leader of their community.16

Meanwhile, the growing lawlessness within the province, and the seeming impunity with which former KLA fighters terrorized and stole from non-Albanians still resident in the province, seemed to indicate that the pendulum had merely swung the other way and the Kosovar Albanians were now treating the Serbs as the Serbs had once treated them. But this apparent brutalization is balanced by an openness about the problems of the postwar period. In a March 2000 interview, Veton Surroi notes that “debate is becoming more vibrant: criminality, political monopolies, the unpreparedness of Kosovo political organizations — we have been dealing with all of these things in public. That shows a strength actually in civil society.”17

How much remains of the historic strength of civil society politics in Kosovo, and of the political will which delayed the province’s descent into open war for more than a decade? As brutalized as Kosovar society has become through war and the loss of political infrastructure, the more imaginative aspects of Ibrahim Rugova’s strategic nonviolence — in particular, the ending of the blood feuds—have probably had a lasting effect on the political culture of the province.


1 Hugh Poulton, The Balkans, London: Minority Rights Group 1991 examines the pre-1991 status of the province in some detail, as do Miranda Vickers, Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo, New York: Columbia University Press 1998; and Julie Mertus, Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War, Berkeley: University of California Press 1999.

2 In particular, see Howard Clark, Civil Resistance in Kosovo, London: Pluto Press 2000.

3 Vickers, p. 182.

4 Vickers, p.183.

5 Or with western Macedonia. In 1981, the last year for which census figures can be considered reliable, there were 1.227 million Albanians in Kosovo: 377,000 in Macedonia; 40,000 in Montenegro: and 50,000 in other parts of Serbia, for a total of 1.7 million in Yugoslavia as a whole. The population of Albania was 2.75 million in the same census year. The modern Albanian republic and the contiguous Albanian-inhabited areas of Yugoslavia thus had a total Albanian population of 4.45 million, of which approximately 28% lived in Kosovo and 10% in other parts of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Figures derived from Poulton, pp. 57, 75, 76.

6 An estimated 85% of births to Kosovar Albanian women during this period took place without any professional medical care. Vickers, p. 274.

7 Rugova led the umbrella national movement, the LDK, from 1989. He was elected president of Kosovo in unofficial elections in 1992. 8. Vickers, pp. 265-266.

9 Howard Clark, ‘The Campaign to Reconcile Blood Feuds in Kosov@’, in Peace News, No. 2438 (Feb-April 2000), pp. 28-29.

10 The magnificently named ‘Gjilan Community Council to Avoid Negative Phenomena’ reported in 1998 that it had settled 541 of the 778 disputes brought before it in the previous six years. Clark, p. 29.

11 “Albanians are prepared to lose a year or two of school,” Zenun Celaj of the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedom stated in 1991. Vickers, p. 301.

12 Most foreign NGOs withdrew in the week before the expiration of the NATO ultimatum. Some Serbian NGOs, most notably Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Centre, continued operating quietly in the region, but the most outspoken of the Belgrade news media—the student radio station B-92 — was shut down on 24 March, thus restricting most Serbs from non-foreign news coverage of the exp1usions and killings in Kosovo. A further warning to journalists was delivered on 11 April, with the assassination of Dnevni Telegraf publisher Slavko Curuvija in Belgrade.

13 Goran Matic, Minister of Information in the Yugoslav government, put forward an even more baroque explanation. There were, he said, “3,000 to 4,000 ethnic Albanians[who] were paid $5.50 each to act the parts of Kosovo refugees during the first 10 days of the NATO airstrikes, leaving and then re-entering Kosovo to create the illusion that hundreds of thousands of refugees were fleeing the province.” Associated Press news story, 10 May 1999. Astonishingly, the Truth in Media Bulletin for 13 May 1999 gave some credence to Matic’s story, arguing that NATO’s explanations were scarcely better.

14 Anthony Borden, ‘Veton Surroi: Sharing the Risks of Democracy’ in Balkan Crisis Reports 50, 23 June 1999.

15 Shkelzen Maliqi, ‘Chaos and Complexities in Kouchner’s Kosovo’ in Balkan Crisis Reports 107, 14 January 2000.

16 Fron Nazi, ‘The Struggle for a Kosovo Authority’ in Balkan Crisis Reports 85, 8 October 1999.

17 Anthony Borden, ‘Surroi: Still Building the New Kosovo’ in Balkan Crisis Reports 127.24 March 2000.