Pretended Thunder over Kosovo

The West has pretended to thunder, and Milosevic has pretended to be struck by lightning." - Mark Almond, analyst, London

By Ken Simons | 1999-01-01 12:00:00

Many people on the left, in North America at least, assume that NATO and U.S. threats against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia mean that "the West" has been backing the Kosova Albanians1 in the struggle for the political future of the former autonomous province of Kosovo. This line of argument is often supported by references to media bias against the Serbs and in favor of other post-Yugoslav nationalities.

In my view, such assumptions are based on a simplistic understanding of politics, ignoring entirely the theatrical nature of international diplomacy and the multiple and often mutually contradictory agendas of the states which dominate the post-Cold War world. There is abundant evidence that the U.S. and NATO governments prefer to deal with a containable Milosevic than with any of a range of alternatives to the current reality of a highly personalized, corrupt, and harsh regime in Serbia, Kosovo, and Vojvodina. This article aims to set out the background to the current conflict, analyze the ambivalent nature of the West's response, and suggest some nonviolent alternatives to ease the threat of renewed war over Kosovo.

In 1987, when Milosevic told a rally of Kosovo Serbs that "nobody is going to beat these people," he entered into a power struggle with the League of Communists of Yugoslavia and the then-party leader in Serbia, Ivan Stambolic. Milosevic's tactic was to depict the Kosovo Serbs as victims of an Albanian-dominated provincial government, the product of misguided moves towards devolution in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution and of insufficiently firm action by the Serbian authorities to check this Albanian dominance. This position was maintained despite the equally strong sense of exclusion felt by many Kosova Albanians, who - particularly after a student protest was suppressed in 1981 - viewed the provincial government as an organ of the federal state, hostile to its ethnic-Albanian opponents.

Nonetheless, Milosevic rode the wave of Serbian national feeling over Kosovo. Once he was firmly in power, he suspended the province's autonomy, fired all Kosova Albanian police officers, forced the closure of Albanian-language university faculties and public schools, and replaced Kosova Albanian doctors and nurses in the state health system.

Nonviolent Resistance

The latter two measures forced the Kosova Albanians to organize, not merely to resist Serbian rule, but to operate the basic services a community needs to survive. This was the foundation for a nonviolent strategy of resistance that also included the creation of a parallel government (which saw itself as exercising the political and social rights promised in the 1974 constitution). Other community-building work aimed at eliminating blood feuds among the Kosova Albanians themselves.

The Kosovars' strategy for nonviolent resistance did not include dialogue with members of Kosovo's Serbian community, in part because there were few from that community who were prepared for dialogue. But - partly through the actions of international NGOs such as the Balkan Peace Team and Belgrade-based human rights groups, and partly through the dogged persistence of local activists like Veton Surroi and Shkelzen Maliqi - opportunities for dialogue had begun to open up prior to the February 1998 escalation.

Today, as winter sets in over the Balkans, refugees - nearly all of them Kosova Albanians who fled their villages during the Serbian offensives of August-September 1998 - are slowly returning though tens of thousands remain in the hills. In the absence of firm guarantees for their safety, many are afraid to return to their homes, or what remains of them.

The bluster of the Western powers offers little consolation to the Kosovars. "The West" showed very little interest in the issue of Kosovo during the nine years of conscious nonviolent resistance to Serbian political and social repression by the province's majority Albanian community. This has a lot to do with how power politics have been understood in the context of former-Yugoslavia - bluntly, that only national groups with well-armed armies or militias are considered to be serious contenders for statehood.

Perhaps paradoxically, "the West" has a large measure of respect for the Milosevic regime precisely because of its repressive power. Conversely, it has a large measure of contempt for the Kosova Albanians because of their military impotence.

Whose Army is the KLA?

The Kosova Liberation Army or KLA is a lightly armed force, lacking in political leadership and a clear command structure. It appeared to come out of nowhere in late 1997, though rumours had floated around the province for some time. Former political prisoner Adem Demaçi acts as a spokesman for the "liberation army," but there is no associated political party in the style of the Northern Irish Sinn Féin or the Basque Country's Herri Batasuna. The KLA's main effectiveness has been in small-scale raids, nuisance actions, and the like; it often appears that its primary goal is to stop the civil opposition from talking to the Serbs.

There's a hypothesis, subscribed to by many Balkans analysts, that the U.S. administration talked up the strength of the KLA so that it would over-extend itself and be easily crushed by the Yugoslav army, Serbian police, and paramilitaries. The rationale is that NATO governments wished to limit the strength of any sort of pan-Albanian national movement, at the same time fatally weakening the appeal of the non- violent approach refined over the years by diverse political forces among the Kosova Albanian community.


It should be clear that the only moral position for a nonviolent activist to take is one which defends the human and political rights of the Kosova Albanians, without assuming that we have a better vision of a viable post-war settlement - be it independence, autonomy within Serbia, partition, or something else. This is also the position taken by the many courageous people in the independent peace and human rights movement in Serbia itself, who now face threats that they will be killed or held hostage in the event of a military intervention.

What Outsiders can do

What can be done from outside to affect the outcome of the situation, without playing into either the Milosevic regime's hands or the (complicated, and probably unscripted) ambitions of Western governments? Some suggestions from War Resisters' International - which has maintained contacts with, and worked to strengthen nonviolent approaches in, Kosovo since 1990 - are:

That states and the international community withdraw recognition of the Serbian claim to territorial integrity in respect of Kosovo (this does not imply acceptance of a Kosovar or Albanian claim to independence or association with another state; merely that, because of its actions in waging war on its own citizens, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) has forfeited the legitimacy of its rule over Kosovo). Furthermore, the international community should undertake a process to determine the wishes of all the people of Kosovo concerning the future of the territory.

For all states to recognize the right to asylum of refugees from Kosovo and for war resisters from FRY.

Support for the anti-war initiatives of anti-militarist and pacifist groups in Serbia and for voices for nonviolence within Kosovo, including those among the Serb and other minorities who oppose the policies of Belgrade and wish to live in peace with Albanians

In the longer term, for peace groups to support the work of the Balkan Peace Team for inter-ethnic dialogue and encouraging civil society initiatives, and for groups to examine other international initiatives for nonviolent intervention (based on requests from people in the situation and organized in close liaison with them).

See the full War Resisters' International statement at warresisters/tri/kosova.htm; see also a statement by Belgrade Women in Black, on official threats against the peace movement, at

Ken Simons is office manager and, this time, managing editor of Peace Magazine.

1This article uses Kosovo to describe the territory; Kosovo Serb to describe the main minority population group; and Kosova Albanian [or Kosovar] to describe the majority population group. Other groups, accounting together for about 8 percent of the province's population, are Montenegrins, Croats, Turks, Slav Muslims, and Roma (Gypsies).

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1999

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1999, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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