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Civil resistance in Kosovo: goals and transitions

Howard Clark’s seminal work Civil Resistance in Kosovo, published in 2000, further refined his distinctive approach to nonviolent strategy, and his groundbreaking research into civil resistance in Kosovo: “Nonviolence in Kosovo was a strategic commitment.”

British soldier in Kosovo, 1999. Demotix/Andrew Chittock. All rights reserved. British soldier in Kosovo, 1999. Demotix/Andrew Chittock. All rights reserved.Gene Sharp and others have argued that nonviolent methods offer a ‘functional alternative to war’, an alternative to military methods of settling disputes. This pragmatic advocacy of nonviolence is addressed to those who share general values of justice and democracy but do not embrace any philosophy of nonviolence. Most of the effective campaigns of civil resistance, they point out, have been mounted by populations without a philosophical commitment to nonviolence but rather using it as the best strategy for their circumstances and purposes. The civil resistance in Kosovo is clearly such a pragmatic case. It is a misnomer to call a strategy ‘pacifist’ that repeatedly called for international military intervention. Nonviolence in Kosovo was a strategic commitment.

For nonviolence to be a ‘functional alternative to war’, however, it is not enough to consider methods alone but also goals. Some goals suggest and even demand the appropriate means. In particular, pluralism and democracy as ends dovetail with means based on the practice of pluralism and democracy. Other goals can themselves be a recipe for war if pursued uncompromisingly whether or not there is any intention of escalating towards violence. Certainly the LDK could have had a stronger peace policy – less focused on independence as a goal and more open to other options, alongside a strategy more communicative with Serbs and putting more effort into confidence building. But was independence for Kosovo itself a ‘war option’?

Rugova and Agani tried to pursue independence in a way that offered an alternative to war – both by means based on refraining from violence and by ‘softening’ the goal of independence. Having recognised (at least in formal terms) the rights of Serbs and other ethnic groups within an independent Kosovo, they offered additional reassurances to Serbia itself and internationally by envisaging Kosovo as a neutral and demilitarised state with open borders towards its neighbours. Later, Rugova went further by calling for an international protectorate as a transition to independence, and Agani, the chief negotiator, was always clear that while Kosovo had the right to independence, negotiations might yield something different and still be acceptable. They would have agreed the text of Rambouillet at any time in the previous eight years – ceasefire, international protection, transitional administration. That the failure of Rambouillet heralded war was not the result of their negotiating stance, nor of the belated Western acceptance of the idea of an open transition. Rather this was the point to which the situation had been brought.

When civil resistance still prevailed, there were two particular problems with the goal of independence. The first problem is that, while Kosovo Albanian civil resistance was able to ‘defeat’ Milošević politically, it was not able to determine the form that defeat would take – it needed allies either within FRY or internationally to influence that. It is not far-fetched to suggest that if Serbia had to ‘lose’ Kosovo – officially as well as in practice – it suited Milošević’s domestic political strategy that he should be seen as fighting for it, losing in battle as had Tsar Lazar, rather than meekly surrendering.[i] Milošević’s rule has brought Serbia a string of military defeats without yet weakening his hold on power. Perhaps a military operation could gain a favourable partition of Kosovo.

The second was that the over-emphasis on final status and under- emphasis on steps towards self-determination contributed to the ossification of the movement under the leadership of the LDK. It was not only the divisive and provocative impact of the UÇK that rendered Kosovo Albanians rudderless at the start of 1999. The movement had needed more awareness that it was gaining control of the situation, that how self-determination would be implemented was in their hands. Writing in 1993, Dušan Janjić of the Forum for Ethnic Relations in Belgrade warned: ‘The absence of interim or transitional objectives ... involves maximum mobilization of the masses for demands which are difficult to obtain. That results in the exhaustion of the masses and narrowing of the political span for dialogue.’[ii] In fact, the degree of mobilisation in the 1991–92 period was not sustained. Whether or not they were exhausted, ‘the masses’ were de-mobilised to an extent that they opened the door for the UÇK.

To create a ‘functional alternative to war’, both in terms of means and goals, required a reformulation of demands in order to link the ultimate goal with a set of subsidiary objectives, so marking progress and bringing the goal more within reach. As an ultimate goal, the negative ‘End Belgrade’s rule of Kosovo’ was clearly more acceptable internationally than an independence that most people interpreted as ‘Albanian rule of Kosovo’. ‘Self-determination’ – without fixing on a precise form (independence, confederation or ‘autonomy plus’) – offered a more open process towards change, more easily concretised in various areas of life and carrying with it the onus to build confidence with other ethnic groups in Kosovo. If the Kosovo Albanian leadership were less suspicious than the Belgrade regime of a step-by-step approach, they nevertheless generated few intermediate demands – such as ‘international observer presence’, ‘withdraw special police’, ‘re-open the schools’, ‘reinstate dismissed workers’ or ‘negotiate for an open transition’ – and focused more on the issue of the status of Kosovo.

The two most recent books in English on the strategy of nonviolent struggle – Ackerman and Kruegler’s Strategic Nonviolent Conflict and Burrowes’ The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense – each offers five criteria for the ‘functional objectives’ (Ackerman and Kruegler)/’list of demands’ (Burrowes). Ackerman and Kruegler:

i)  They should be concrete and specific enough to be achievable within a reasonable timeframe.

ii)  They should readily suggest the use of a diverse array of nonviolent sanctions.

iii)  They should be seen to preserve the vital (as opposed to marginal) interests of the nonviolent protagonists, and, ideally, be of more compelling interest for them than for the adversary.

iv)  The goals must attract the widest possible support within the societies affected by the conflict.

v)  Objectives should resonate with the values or interests of external parties, in order to attract their support and potential assistance.[iii]


i) The demands must be concrete, easily understood and ‘within the power of the opponent to yield’.

ii)  They should accurately reflect the needs of the people engaged in the defence effort in order to mobilise widespread support for the struggle.

iii)  They should include an explicit commitment to the needs of the opponent.

iv)  They may expose moral weak points in the position of the opponent elite.

v)  They should constitute the substance of the political purpose.[iv]

These sets of criteria illuminate several differences between the ‘technique-based’ and the ‘values-based’ poles of opinion among advocates of nonviolence. Ackerman and Kruegler (technique pole) are frank: ‘Simply put, this book is about who wins based on who makes best use of the resources and options at hand.’[v] To the extent that Burrowes (values pole) sees a need for nonviolent coercion, it is in order to secure ‘the participation of the opponent elite in a problem-solving process’.[vi] The most emphatic difference in these sets is Burrowes’ prioritising the ‘explicit commitment to the needs of the opponent’, the most specifically Gandhian and nonviolent characteristic of all the criteria, the one most demanding of an oppressed population and yet the one that most decisively steers the conflict away from war.

This is an extract from Civil Resistance in Kosovo, H. Clark, Pluto Press 2000, pp.203-206.

[i] In this sense, the current regime maintains the Titoite tradition that made capitulation or surrender an act of treason. Alternative Defence Commission, Defence without the Bomb (Taylor and Francis, 1983), p. 117.

[ii] D. Janjić,‘National movements and Conflicts of Serbs and Albanians’, in D. Janjić and S. Maliqi (eds), Conflict or Dialogue: Serbian Albanian relations and integration of the Balkans (Subotica, 1994), p. 164.

[iii] P. Ackerman and C. Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century (Westport: Praeger, 1994), p. 24.

[iv] For Burrowes, ‘political purpose’ has to be defined in terms of ‘creating conditions that will satisfy human needs’. Burrowes, The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense, p. 208.

[v] Ackerman and Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, p. xx.

[vi] Burrowes considers ‘nonviolent coercion’ as legitimate in securing such 
participation, but also suggests ‘inducement’ by addressing the opponent elite’s ‘unmet human needs’. The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense, Ch. 8.


About the author

Howard Clark was a civil resistance scholar, peace activist and chair of War Resisters’ International. His most recent book is People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity (London: Pluto 2009)


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