Review: Civil Resistance in Kosovo

Howard Clark Pluto Press London, 2001. 266pp

By Ken Simons (reviewer)

Of all the civil conflicts of the 1990s, Kosovo was perhaps the clearest case where concerted international action could have prevented war. Action, preferably in the form of diplomatic sanctions against the Serbian regime, was seen as both necessary and indispensable. Unfortunately, it was only after the power shifted away from nonviolent resistance toward violent confrontation that world institutions did take notice. It was a terrible waste, not just for the unnecessary death and suffering during the 1998-99 war by Serbian security forces against the Kosova Liberation Army and people it suspected of supporting the armed resistance, but also for the killings of Serbian and Albanian civilians and mass deportations which characterized the much larger conflict of spring 1999.

Finally, a post-war order became characterized by anti-Serbian terror, the departure or retreat of most moderate Serbs in the province, the apparent marginalization of Kosovo's civil society leadership, and the politics of armed confrontation in neighboring Macedonia.

It need not have turned out like this. Howard Clark's Civil Resistance in Kosovo examines the Kosovar Albanians' unarmed opposition to Serbian rule from the late 1980s to the 1999 war. It is a chronicle of nearly ten years of deliberate and largely consistent nonviolent protest and organizing against the Serbian nationalist regime's brutal occupation-cum-crusade in Kosovo. Howard Clark first went to Kosovo in 1992 as an activist for the London-based War Resisters' International (WRI). At the time, nonviolence trainers and scholars saw the province's largely unheralded civil struggle as an important counter to the argument that the Balkan wars would inevitably spread southward. Through telephone contact, very low-key visits to the region, and existing international networks, WRI and a few other groups had hoped to organize a seminar on social defence in either Prishtine (the Kosovar capital) or Skopje (in neighboring Macedonia). The project failed, but other projects, notably the Balkan Peace Team, developed out of these contacts.

The nonviolent resistance in Kosovo had a strong theoretical and philosophical basis, a high degree of popular support and social cohesion, and a range of effective and nonviolent tactics. What it wanted from the outside world was acknowledgment: as with the satyagraha campaign in India or the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the movement wished to be recognized as morally deserving of support, particularly in contrast to the regime's violence and rigidity. Only a military threat, as emerged in 1998 with medium-intensity warfare between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), focused the attention of the rest of Europe and the world.

Clark argues that the civil strategy of the Kosovar Albanian parties was too strongly focused on external perceptions, failing to take effective action in a changing matrix of Serbian state repression. Particularly after the Dayton Agreement, which ended the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, there was a failure to realistically anticipate a change in Serbian tactics. Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), the coalition which dominated the nonviolent resistance and the parallel government, showed an increasing inflexibility to change, alienating both the nonviolent student leadership and the advocates of armed resistance.

Nevertheless, the years of civil resistance were neither a waste nor a mistake. Kosovar civil society developed and matured in contrast to, and in reaction to, a high degree of state repression. During a two-year campaign in 1990-92, the Campaign to Reconcile Blood Feuds effectively ended a practice which had set families against one another throughout rural Kosovo.

Clark also deals with the attempts - largely on the fringes of the nonviolent resistance - to establish dialogue with Serbs from Serbia and within Kosovo. Efforts within Kosovo remained tentative up to the time of the 1999 war; little evidence now remains of these efforts. Contacts with non-nationalists from Serbia proper were both more significant and more enduring - largely through the efforts of the Humanitarian Law Fund and Radio B-92. Some Serbs (mostly in Belgrade) were able to acknowledge the links between the regime's policies in Kosovo and the violence it directed against "its own people."

This book is essential both for readers wishing to deepen their understanding of the Kosovo conflict and for students of nonviolent civil resistance and social defence. Peace activists can learn a great deal about the theory and practice of prolonged unarmed resistance, provided they reject the analysis that "the West" was the primary guilty party in the Kosovo conflict.

Reviewed by Ken Simons, Peace Magazine's office manager.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2001

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2001, page 30. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Ken Simons here

Peace Magazine homepage