Kosova's nonviolent struggle

The majority Albanian population of Kosova have used exclusively nonviolent tactics in response to over ten years of government repression. But frustration is building

By Howard Clark | 1998-01-01 12:00:00

When on 29 November three masked men, wearing military fatigues and carrying semi-automatic weapons, appeared at the public funeral for a teacher shot by police, foreign editors pricked up their ears. This was the first public appearance of UÇK (the Kosova Liberation Army). After seven long years of nonviolent struggle, were the Albanians of Kosova -- the formerly autonomous province of Yugoslavia, where Albanians outnumber Serbs 9:1 -- finally turning to counter-violence?

Visiting Kosova earlier that month, I found this less important than it seems to foreign journalists or in exile circles, where there has long been an element urging armed struggle. I found less interest in abandoning nonviolence than in waging nonviolent struggle more effectively -- especially among students whose recent nonviolent protests were the first major street demonstrations for five years. The talk was more of gaining something soon, with the prospect of independence following in a few years, than of plunging into a bloody war.

The public appearance of UÇK has come at a time of crisis in the Kosova leadership, and when the movement itself urgently needs revitalization. Even in comparison with six months before, I encountered a stronger frustration with the apparent stagnation in the situation. The key factor behind the frustration is that Kosova was left out of the Dayton Agreement, and instead was offered reassurances that it had not been forgotten and would be the next priority after Bosnia. Yet day-to-day reality changes little: a reality of deprivation and oppression. Factories shut down, workers unemployed in their masses, families depending on members going into exile to send them the means to live, school buildings closed, poverty, malnutrition, contagious diseases, rising infant mortality, and the perpetual intimidation and frequent brutality of the Serbian police force.


The LDK -- the League for a Democratic Kosova -- has dominated Albanian political life for the past six years, but now many people accuse it of "passivity." The impression is spreading that LDK leader Ibrahim Rugova, elected president of Kosova in the parallel elections of 1992, is out of touch with "his" people. People may call Rugova "the Albanian Gandhi," but he lacks the dynamism and the vision of the Mahatma, the desire to experiment, and the eagerness to explain himself. And the LDK resembles nothing as much as one of the old ruling Communist Parties, bureaucratic and gerontocratic, treating its youth as if they are fit to be a volunteer auxiliary doing charity work rather than as if they have a right to shape the future. "Why did Elvis die?" asks the screen-saver on a computer in the Students Union office. "Because he joined the LDK."

In September 1996, Rugova signed an Education Agreement with Slobodan Milosevic to re-open the schools. This, said an LDK statement at the time, was one of the first rewards for the policy of peaceful resistance. Fifteen months later there is still no sign of the schools re-opening: that all depends on progress in the 3 + 3 Talks (three Albanian with three Serbian representatives).

Education is a central issue. The poorest region of former Yugoslavia, Kosova had by far the highest birthrate, the highest illiteracy rate, but in 1989-90 -- the years when it lost its autonomy -- it also had the highest proportion of young people in higher education. Over half the 2 million Albanians in Kosova are under the age 24.

Seven years ago, Serbia -- having unilaterally and unconstitutionally stripped Kosova of its autonomy -- tried to incorporate Kosova into Serbia, from the level of replacing Albanian street names with Serbian ones to introducing forced economic management, firing 127,000 Albanians (70 per cent of those in employment). This included trying to impose a Serbian education curriculum. When defiant teachers insisted on teaching the Albanian curriculum, their pay was stopped. For nine months they carried on without pay, until they were physically barred from the schools. Now Albanian education takes place in a parallel system.

Primary schools usually function in state buildings, either physically segregated from the Serbian pupils or taking place in the same rooms but before and after the Serbian children have completed their timetable. Secondary and university teaching is carried out in what would otherwise be empty houses, in garages, occasionally in a school building. The enrollment figures are impressive and the teachers -- 19,000 of them -- are now paid from funds collected by the Republic of Kosova.

However, if the figures are impressive, the conditions are appalling. Pupils are crammed into their makeshift classrooms, without any elbow room, usually sitting on benches and often without any writing surfaces. Only the most old-fashioned teaching methods are possible. A music teacher I met had had the temerity to organize an outdoor activity, a celebration of the school anniversary held in the school yard: it was interrupted by police and the teacher was taken for interrogation. She was lucky; many teachers have been badly beaten for doing less.

The drop-out rate in elementary schools is high -- about 25 per cent -- and this especially affects girls; it is not unusual for economic hardship to reinforce or revive patriarchal patterns.

Maintaining even this inadequate system absorbs the bulk of the voluntary taxes collected in Kosova. The Council of Finance and its branches coordinate some 1,000 voluntary tax collectors. Often these are people sacked from jobs in public administration now running the risk of harassment and arrest -- or in one case in 1995 death from a police beating -- for "financing illegal bodies." Families are assessed and agree to pay around 5-10 DM per month or, if they are receiving income from a family member abroad, 30-40 DM per month. Over half the income of the Republic of Kosova is raised through these voluntary contributions, the remainder coming from funds collected by the Government in Exile. Some collectors proudly pointed out how much more they collected on the basis of their voluntary work and people's voluntary allegiance to the Republic of Kosova than did the Serbian authorities with all their employees and police force. Nevertheless, they were several months behind in paying the teachers' wages.


Hydajet Hyseni, one of the critics of LDK's passivity, is actually one of the two vice-presidents of the party. He speaks of "an immense amount of activity" by "an army of activists" which gives the Republic of Kosova a solid base and "a social and cultural life of solidarity." But this base does not satisfy the needs of the population. In consequence, he explains, "there is the contradictory situation of a solid base but a loss of hope, especially among youth." He would like the LDK to become a catalyst, motivating people anew, engaging the full potential of the population of Kosova.

A former political prisoner, Hyseni is one of the leading voices for "active nonviolence" in contrast to the "passive nonviolence," so-called, of the current policy of non-cooperation and maintaining parallel institutions. Another such voice is another former political prisoner -- called by some of his followers "the Albanian Mandela" because of his 27 years in prison -- Adem Demaçi, who early in 1997 joined the Parliamentary Party of Kosova as its leader and presidential candidate (in the now overdue parallel president elections).

However, the proponents of "active nonviolence" who made most impact in 1997 were the University of Prishtina students who took the streets in October and are planning a sustained campaign. Defying warnings from Ibrahim Rugova and from international diplomats, their first protest on 1 October was a march, intending to reach the buildings of the state university and demand that they be opened. Police blocked their path and with truncheons and tear gas dispersed the student marchers, and the crowd demonstrating their support.

The students are well aware of the limits in which they operate. On the one hand, they have had to create a different atmosphere "after five years of passivity." This, explained Student Union Vice-President Albin Kurti, was why throughout September thousands of students had joined the korzo, the customary promenades each evening in the centre of town, to encourage people to discuss action against the continued exclusion of Albanians from the university and secondary schools, and to generate an expectancy about action. However, the dangers of escalation can never be forgotten. So 1 October was marked by elaborate preparations to maintain nonviolence. The Organizing Committee drew up 11 principles and rules, approved and made banners in 31 slogans, and called on students to march according to their faculty, wearing a white top and a badge bearing the University symbol.

Their second protest was a rally on 29 October, lasting less than an hour in Prishtina (the capital) and dispersing ahead of police intervention. In the days preceding this, the Students Union received a delegation from Belgrade students groups for a dialogue. Since then, a petition has been circulating among students in Serbia supporting the Kosovars' right to education.

There have been repeated postponements of subsequent demonstrations. On the one hand, explains Kurti, "we want to create a rhythm of protest"; on the other hand, "this is not protest for protest's sake but as effective action for our platform." The Students Union now has started a library of books on nonviolent action.

Active nonviolence needs to change the atmosphere, but not only about protest, nor even only about seeking allies among the population of Serbia, but also about improving daily life. In response to the mass sackings, many small businesses -- especially trading companies -- were set up, but with people just copying each other, without any body trying to coordinate this into a program of economic revival. Now, with Kosova importing over 1m DM worth of food per day from Serbia, surely this is an issue that needs addressing. There is limited space for action in such repressive conditions, but Gandhi -- with his emphasis on "constructive program," on the villages, and on self-reliance -- would certainly have been advocating a constructive program of village renewal, with small-scale agricultural and sanitation projects.

Howard Clark, former coordinator of War Resisters' International, is an Albert Einstein Institution Fellow with a grant supporting his research on Kosova

NOTE: "Kosova" is the Albanian name for the province, called "Kosovo" in Serbian. As this article deals with Kosova Albanian institutions, the former version of the name is used.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1998

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1998, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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