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Kosovo's Impending Independence: The Legacy of Nonviolence For Europe's Newest State

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In December 1994 I traveled to Kosovo for field work on the simmering ethnic conflict that was occurring there during violent wars elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia. My main goal was to understand the nature of the nonviolent campaign being waged by the majority of Kosovo’s citizens (the majority of whom were ethnic Albanians) towards their political independence. I was interested in learning whether Kosovo would go down the path of much of the rest of Yugoslavia where widespread ethnic cleansing was used to resolve ethnic conflicts, or whether the ethnic conflict would be peacefully resolved. I desired to find ways of helping promote a peaceful resolution of the Kosovo conflict, and make it an example of how even intractable ethnic conflicts could be peacefully resolved.

I had been given a research grant to travel to Kosovo by the Australian National University, where I had just completed my first year as an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Political Science. My area of specialty was nonviolent political action and how this could be used to peacefully resolve ethnic conflicts. I had studied the political philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and applied their ideas to international conflict. Studying the nonviolent campaign in Kosovo led by the European Gandhi, Ibrahim Rugova, was a rare opportunity to study a nonviolent campaign in action. I also planned to travel throughout the former Yugoslavia to better understand the ethnic conflicts that accompanied the break up of Yugoslavia.

I finally would travel to Albania to learn more about my father’s ancestral roots who was an Albanian émigré from Elbasan, Albania, who traveled to Italy where he met my mother. The subsequent marital union between an Albanian Muslim and an Italian Catholic was unusual at the time (1957). Special permission had to be given by the Vatican which dictated that the offspring of the union would have to be raised as Catholics. My parents’ subsequent emigration to Australia in 1958 gave an even more exotic flavor to their offspring. Significantly, we were all raised as Catholics, helping confirm that my father’s Muslim faith did not impinge much on his Albanian identity. As I later learned when visiting my father’s ancestral village, the Muslim roots of Albania are very thin indeed. Apparently, an Ottoman Turkish captain visited my father’s Orthodox Christian village sometime in the 1800’s and commanded that the village elders immediately convert to Islam or there would be trouble! I saw for myself the old Christian graveyard next to a more contemporary graveyard testifying to the rapid religious conversion of the village. This flexibility of Albanian national identity when it came to incorporating different religious backgrounds, is an important insight into the Albanian people of the Balkans, including the Kosovars.

When I reached Kosovo during the mild Balkan winter of 1994 that had just begun, I interviewed as many people as possible in the two weeks I planned to spend there. I spoke with human rights workers, lawyers, academics, political activists, religious leaders, taxi drivers and common citizens from both the Albanian majority population and the Serbian minority. The picture that emerged confirmed what I had learned from my preliminary research conducted in the safe ivory tower of Canberra, Australia. Kosovo was a police state run from Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia’s largest province, Serbia, where repression, extortion, and systematic human rights abuses were regularly used against the Albanian majority. In return, the Kosovars had decided to adopt the nonviolent principles advocated by their popular leader, Ibrahim Rugova, a former Shakespearean scholar. The Kosovars would wage a nonviolent campaign to achieve their political goals. It was a wise choice and dictated by hard political realities following the usurpation of political power by Belgrade.

Kosovo had up to 1989, enjoyed special status as an autonomous territory in the Former Yugoslavia. The territory of Kosovo had its own court system, police force, bureaucracy, and parliamentary system. Kosovo was one of the eight federal units of Yugoslavia which comprised six republics and two autonomous territories. This complex political arrangement, established by Josip Broz Tito, the founder of Yugoslavia, was a complex compromise. It judiciously balanced the ethnic aspirations of Kosovo’s majority Albanian population, with the political ambitions of Belgrade, Serbia, that wanted ultimate control over a territory that was the cradle of Serbian national identity.

This delicate political arrangement unraveled when an ambitious Serbian politician, Slobodan Milosevic decided to exploit grievances by the Serbian ethnic minority in Kosovo. Milosevic traveled to Kosovo in 1987 to the site of ancient battle fought and lost by a medieval Serbian kingdom. Milosevic managed to stage a political rally of 15,000 where Serbian protestors threw stones at Kosovo police, who in turn used truncheons against the crowd. The televised pictures of ethnic Albanian police beating Serbian protestors was too much for ordinary Serbs. The siren call of ethnic nationalism proved too alluring to Serbs brought up on a diet of Serbian myth and folklore, and was to prove the death knell of the modern state of Yugoslavia.

Milosevic demanded increased political powers to right the wrongs perpetrated against the ethnic minority Serbs in Kosovo. The result was the spectacular rise in the political fortunes of Milosevic, and the usurpation of Kosovo’s political autonomy. The Kosovo parliament, police force and bureaucracy was now directly controlled by Belgrade. The other Yugoslav republics protested to no avail, and accelerated their own plans to secede from the Yugoslav federation. The break up of Yugoslavia would prove costly for all the territories where ethnically driven political violence divided former neighbors against one another; and where intermarriage and friendships placed individuals in awkward positions in the growing ethnic divide. It was a blood bath, and I hoped that the same would not happen in Kosovo.

Kosovo was to remain a haven of relative peace while much of the former Yugoslavia erupted into war, leading to ethnic cleansing and large movements of peoples across the battle lines from 1991-1995. Rugova, a prominent Kosovo intellectual, provincial leader, argued that the Kosovars would have to remain nonviolent in the face of the overwhelming military resources enjoyed by Belgrade. His argument was compelling, and unanimously, the Albanians supported his struggle and elected him their leader in several unrecognized elections. In my interviews, I was amazed at the discipline the Kosovars showed in maintaining their nonviolent struggle despite many provocations. All I interviewed showed great respect for Rugova, and fully understood why his nonviolent campaign was the only way to achieve the Kosovar’s political goals.

After most Albanian Kosovars were sacked from the police, judiciary and bureaucracy, a parallel system had been set up. The goal was to deny any legitimacy to the official system that Belgrade had imposed on the Kosovars. It was the parallel system that got most of my attention during my stay in Kosovo. I was especially interested in the parallel education, health and political systems that the Kosovars had set up. The Kosovars, denied access to official schools and facilities, used private homes to set up a comprehensive educational system from primary school to university. Primarily funded by Kosovar émigrés working in Europe, a steady stream of cash flowed into Kosovo to pay for teachers, buildings and school supplies. I interviewed students and teachers, and watched some classes in actions. All Kosovars involved in this parallel educational system viewed it with great pride as a symbol of their political resistance to Belgrade’s control, and quest for independence. Many teachers survived with a meager salary provided by the parallel educational authority that had been set up.

Similarly, a parallel system of private health clinics had been set up throughout Kosovo. The Kosovars had little regard for the official hospitals that were regarded with great suspicion. They viewed the official system as a vehicle of Belgrade’s effort to drive the Albanian majority out of Kosovo. Stories from those that attended official health services described discrimination, financial extortion, forced sterilizations and mishaps that alienated most Kosovars against the poorly funded state facilities. The private health clinics were again funded by foreign remittances and some private charities. One of the more prominent was Mother Teresa, also of Albanian ancestry, who had set up some of her own health clinics under her Missionaries of Charity foundation.

Politically, the Kosovars organized their own elections, which Rugova handily won. He appointed his own cabinet and efforts were made to organize the parallel system and seek official international support for the “Republic of Kosovo”. Rugova traveled widely around the world seeking support for his nonviolent political campaign and for Kosovo’s parallel government. Economically, the Kosovars were also able to separate from the official system Belgrade had imposed. The remittances from expatriates funded a flourishing private market sector while the public sector languished as a result of the Balkan wars.

Rugova’s nonviolent political struggle was successfully attracting the support of a range of European leaders and human rights organizations. Importantly, Congressional delegations came from the United States to observe at first hand what was happening in Kosovo. Europeans and Americans were impressed by the European Gandhi, and made sympathetic statements of support while the rest of Yugoslavia burned under the fires of ethnic hatred. Belgrade, chastised by international criticism, tempered its policies in Kosovo, and resorted to typical police state tools against a rebellious population, repression, thuggery and officially sanctioned extortion.

What I found during my stay in Kosovo was ample evidence confirming the systematic human rights abuses that had been alleged by numerous victims by international human rights organizations. I had interviewed the leaders of indigenous human rights organizations in several of Kosovo’s cities as well as in Belgrade. Ample documentation and testimony proved that systematic violations were occurring, even against human rights investigators that monitored abuses. It was clear that the now Serbian dominated police force had little regard for human rights standards, and viewed the Albanian population as ripe for extortion to supplement meager wages. This was not all that surprising since the usurpation of Kosovo made it a haven for opportunists and criminal gangs from Serbia that flowed into Kosovo to reap a rich harvest from the expatriate remittances. I interviewed numerous taxi drivers who revealed how cash laden Kosovar expatriates coming home to visit family members would emerge from Serbian police check points deprived of their hard earned cash. Expatriate workers and taxi drivers were grateful not to be imprisoned for carrying large sums of foreign currencies that the Serbian authorities decreed illegal. This was despite the fact that Yugoslav banks were under a foreign embargo making it impossible for worker remittances to enter Kosovo in any other way. Thus Kosovars were routinely expropriated of foreign revenue through an officially sanctioned extortion system.

Later, after NATO military intervention, there would be accusations that Kosovo’s funds came from the CIA sanctioned drugs trade. I found no evidence to support such allegations when in Kosovo. All the Kosovars I had spoken to described how the remittances of a relative from elsewhere in Europe, would supply a whole household, and there was little evidence of a drugs trade. More ominously, several Serbian paramilitary groups that distinguished themselves by their brutality and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, had begun establishing a presence in Kosovo. If war was to break out, the Serbian paramilitaries would spring into action and would initiate the same brutal ethnic cleansing that had earlier occurred in Bosnia and Croatia.

In 1995, the Dayton accords ended the tragic war in Bosnia. Unfortunately, it provided no political framework for ending the Kosovo conflict. Rugova’s nonviolent campaign would last for another four years before it would unravel with the activities of the shadowy Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The KLA began with the violent resistance by several large Kosovar family clans in remote rural areas that chafed under continued brutality by Serbian authorities. The violence quickly escalated and undermined the nonviolent campaign led by Rugova that was centered in large urban areas. By late 1998, Kosovo was going down the same path of Bosnia and Croatia with full scale ethnic conflict – the nonviolent campaign was now nothing more that a quixotic dream. NATO’s military intervention in March 1999 put an end to Belgrade’s effort to systematically cleanse Kosovo of a large number of Albanians to establish a new ethnic balance more suited to Belgrade’s political goals for Kosovo.

NATO’s military intervention and the reestablishment of indigenous Kosovar authorities led to retaliatory actions by former KLA members against those that had previously helped Belgrade’s military campaign. Many Serbs and other ethnic Kosovar minorities fled, and a cycle of revenge attacks began against those Serbs that chose to stay. NATO and Kosovo political authorities intervened to maintain ethnic harmony, and to punish transgressors. Chief on the political agenda of the newly established Kosovo civil authorities was to restore ethnic tolerance. A tall order given the bitter history of the region, but nevertheless one that needs to be undertaken given Kosovo’s political future as an independent European state.

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Dr. Michael Salla is an internationally recognized scholar in international politics, conflict resolution, US foreign policy and the new field of 'exopolitics'. He is author/editor of nine books; and held academic appointments in the School of (more...)

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