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Civil resistance in Kosovo: leader syndromes

This is one of two extracts from Howard Clark’s major study Civil Resistance in Kosovo (the other can be read here). Both are important reflections of Howard’s particular perspectives. They merit close reading alongside his article “The limits of prudence” (republished here).

Ibrahim Rugova Square, Pristina, Kosovo. Ibrahim Rugova Square, Pristina, Kosovo. Flickr/Margo Thierry. Some rights reserved.Many people associate nonviolent movements with the leadership of Gandhi or Martin Luther King – personalities to whom it is fitting to apply the overused term ‘charisma’. Such a leader inspires people to go beyond their limits. Also in both cases, they used their leadership at times to restrain their movements. Neither of them descended from heaven but rather they built themselves or were built up as leaders – Gandhi in India especially after his return from South Africa, and King who found himself as the voice of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They were in the heroic mould; personal courage prepared them for assassination. Rugova – contrary to popular belief – was not a founder of the LDK, nor even apparently the first person offered the post of LDK president. Rather he came to the helm as someone who had shown integrity as president of the Writers’ Association and through lack of an alternative around whom there could be unity. His build-up came subsequently. He was not in the heroic mould. Maliqi’s view in 1996 was that ‘he precisely is the man who was best suited for this situation of neither war nor peace, the politics of non-doing.’[i] This was not a hostile remark, but rather an appreciation of the qualities of prudence and patience that Rugova displayed. However, apart from his Friday press conferences, Rugova seemed increasingly remote from his own population, without this in any way affecting their faith in him. Somehow the more Rugova refused to answer his critics, the more presidential his aura became. Criticisms of him invariably seemed to rebound against their authors. Such a style of leadership was as alien to the young journalists on Koha Ditore as to the Western journalists who turned to them for local analysis.

Reliance on a few leaders is a weakness, according to Boserup and Mack:

“An ideology, which instead of the excellence of leaders and individuals, emphasises the people as a whole and its unity as the true basis of strength seems much more likely to be able to resist the occupant’s efforts at disruption ... It is not heroism per se which is needed, but flexibility by the leadership, in adapting to those forms of resistance which the population can sustain and is willing to sustain under the given conditions.”[ii]

To this should be added the need for a structure that can combine maintaining unity with encouraging diversity, both of initiative and at times in terms of who bears the brunt of a strategy.

In the case of Kosovo, it is natural to write about the leader, Rugova, what he could or should have done at different points. He personally was a symbol. The power to take key strategic decisions was increasingly concentrated in a small circle around him. Nevertheless, the history of the leadership of civil resistance in Kosovo is not just his personal history, but shifts with time. Leadership may reside with a person, a decision-making structure, an organisation and/or it can be diffuse, encouraging self-organised activity initiated locally. Various tasks involved in leadership are divided – perhaps between different levels of leadership or different types of bodies. Any new structures for decision-making or initiative have to negotiate their place with what existed in society. In Kosovo, recent traditions offered three models of organisation: the authoritarian and nepotistic LCY; the patriarchal extended family, conformity to the ‘social circle’ and residual ‘customary law’ (including Councils of Elders/Neighbours); and the conspiratorial ‘cell’ structure of the Enverist groups of the 1980s. In 1989, two other models from Eastern Europe were also popular: ‘civil society’ movements and independent trade unions.

At the beginning of the nonviolent struggle, there seemed to be a convergence of organised workers, students and intellectuals. The need for restraint – persuading people not to join the street protests in January 1990 or to lynch Serbs for the ‘poisoning’ of March 1990 – was imposed not through authority structures, but through debate between peers, the LDK’s involvement being belated. Then diverse initiatives were pursued rather spontaneously – the petition For Democracy, Against Violence, the variety of ‘semi-resistance’ protests, the ‘homages’ and the campaign for reconciliation of blood feuds. These drew on and in turn enhanced the unity of the people.

As Kosovo’s autonomy was annulled, the former parliamentarians bestowed legitimacy upon a fairly representative leadership, presided over by the rather consensual figure of Ibrahim Rugova who in turn headed the dominant new organisation, the LDK. Self-organisation at the level of teachers and parents in the schools, human rights monitors in the CDHRF, or medics through the MTA brought into existence other essential structures, while the solidarity funds of the unions and of the LDK itself became a major source of humanitarian assistance. Self-restraint and refusal to be provoked emerged as a social consensus that was supported by the activity of CDHRF and LDK activists going to the scenes of incidents.

Increasingly, however, especially after the 1992 elections, President Rugova and the LDK projected themselves as the authentic voice of Kosovo Albanians. The Republic of Kosova became responsible for organising a voluntary taxation system (on an all-party basis), for paying teachers’ wages, and for distributing some humanitarian assistance. As far as Kosovo’s constitutional status or any future negotiations were concerned, this legitimacy was essential. It had been clearly established through the 1991 referendum and 1992 elections, and was scrupulously recognised by minority figures – such as Maliqi, Gazmend Pula and Surroi – who took a more flexible approach to negotiations. Those rare attempts by Serbian parties to co-opt ‘flexible’ – as distinct from either ‘loyal’ or ‘separatist’ – Kosovo Albanians were generally met by a firm principled insistence that the legitimate voices of the Kosovo Albanian had to be heard.

The massive education protests in October 1992 were primarily organised by the education unions, with LDK backing. Afterwards, they agreed that little would be gained at too great a cost by organising similar general demonstrations at this time, and the LDK began to put a general bar on demonstrations as ‘provocations’. At the time, this seemed a wise decision, although it carried the danger that the people would be de-mobilised for too long. Also in 1993 Maliqi and Surroi found themselves politically adrift. It was becoming clear that the LDK – and even more the attitudes dominant in Bujku and traditional Albanian forms of social pressure – restricted initiative and established a conformity that became more than a matter of maintaining nonviolent discipline. In 1992, Fehmi Agani was not alone in asking: ‘How long can the political leaders, the patriarchs and the hoxhas channel the discontent?’[iii] However, it became increasingly clear that Kosovo’s established leaders were no longer ‘channelling’, rather their attitude was one of extreme passivity, waiting for something to happen on the international stage, while taking a posture of laissez-faire on improving daily life in Kosovo. The refusal to convene the parliament, the failure to open a Belgrade office and the lack of a development programme justify references to this not as a period of stability but rather of stagnation. In retrospect, one might even suspect that there was an almost deliberate attempt to create conditions for the arrival of a liberation army.

However, another form of leadership began to emerge. Leaving aside the rather sterile political debate with its repeated (although legitimate) calls for a more collegiate style of leadership, the new initiatives were coming from diverse sources. They came above all from people – especially women’s groups – looking to start NGOs dealing with the everyday issues of life in Kosovo, from the kind of discussions encouraged by Koha and for the type of activities that the Open Society Fund was willing to fund. These were not concerned with posing an alternative platform – only Koha operated as an explicit challenge to the established leadership – but rather with generating energy for change and a different and more diffuse form of social leadership within every community. The student leadership was rather different, even before it was sucked into the explicit politics of boycotting the elections. It saw itself as the democratically elected and representative head of a constituency within Kosovo, entitled not only to defy Rugova in the name of that constituency but also to lay down a strict discipline for demonstrations. Perhaps, I thought, they could learn from Poland where from the mid-1980s on the small group actions of Wolnosc i Pokoj and the Orange Alternative galvanised a situation where Solidarnosc had lost momentum. This was not for them.[iv]

By the time of the public appearance of the UÇK at the end of 1997, there were many reasons to regard the LDK as a fossil and it seemed incapable of any new initiative. Yet it continued to command the allegiance of the population, as did Ibrahim Rugova personally.

Contemporary Western social movements – be they feminist, ecological or anti-militarist – tend to be sceptical of anyone aspiring to personal leadership. Instead they prefer either a collective style of decision-making or a diffuse coordination where each group takes its own initiatives, sometimes within only the loosest guidelines. My view, stemming no doubt from such predispositions, was that persistence in the struggle in Kosovo would have been better sustained less through obedience, conformity and faith than by (i) a more collective style of decision-making combined with (ii) greater self-organisation through diffuse leadership operating within (iii) clear strategic themes and guidelines. However, leadership is one of the most culturally specific forms of social organisation, and I am acutely aware that I write from outside that culture.

Western commentators typically found Rugova an ‘unlikely’ leader figure. Repeatedly they wrote him off in 1998 and again during 1999 – a year that one might have expected to prove disastrous for his career. He had a period under house arrest, was filmed on TV smiling with Milošević while Kosovo was being ethnically cleansed, later seemed undecided whether to live in Italy or Kosovo and on his return to Kosovo behaved more like a constitutional monarch than a practical politician. Yet even at the end of 1999 opinion polls still showed him to be by far the most popular and trusted figure among Kosovo Albanians.

In May 1998, the Guardian’s Jonathan Steele attended the funeral in the Peja municipality of the first local LDK branch leader to be killed in the Serbian offensive. Steele was scandalised that not only was there no LDK central representative present, there was not even a message from a leadership that seemed completely bankrupt. Its hardest worker, Fehmi Agani, admitted that they had nothing to say to the villages. That evening Steele and I were finding it hard to imagine another social struggle where a local leader could be killed without a representative of the national leadership making a day trip to attend the funeral. Yet discussing this with Kosovo Albanians, they found nothing surprising about this behaviour, and not just because it was what they had come to expect of the LDK. It was as if once the national consensus had been established – something that took place in the period when urban activists went to villages after incidents and when Çetta led the blood feud campaign – it should hold until the time arrived to change. Inactivity, relying on the solidity of local structures and family discipline, therefore became the appropriate response to a challenge. Facing a new situation, the LDK was paralysed.

This is an extract from Civil Resistance in Kosovo, H. Clark, Pluto Press 2000, pp.198-203.

[i] S. Maliqi, Kosova: Separate Worlds – Reflections and Analyses (Prishtina: MM/Peja: Dukagjini, 1998), p.239.

[ii] Anders Boserup and Andrew Mack, War Without Weapons (Frances Pinter, 1974), p. 163. Boserup and Mack went so far as to argue that unity is the ‘centre of gravity’ of the resistance, a view contested by Gene Keyes (who argues for ‘morale’) – in ‘Strategic Nonviolent Defense: The Construct of an Option’, Journal of Strategic Studies 4 (June 1981), p. 144 and by R. Burrowes, The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Grundhian Approach (Syracuse: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 168.

[iii] Quoted by Marie-Françoise Allain and Xavier Galmiche, ‘Guerre sans armes au Kosovo: la tenace résistance d’un “peuple interdit”’, Le Monde Diplomatique, May 1992.

[iv] Although Botae Re and Koha Ditore both published an article from David Hartsough in spring 1998 arguing for nonviolence, including the formation of small action groups to plan particular campaigns, there was no take up on this suggestion – perhaps due to timing, perhaps due to a stronger cultural resistance.


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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