The limits of prudence: civil resistance in Kosovo 1990-98

Howard Clark’s 2009 article “The Limits of Prudence” is a clear summary of his research into the civil resistance in Kosovo in the late 1980s and early 1990s and his particular perspectives on its limitations. It was written in the aftermath of the outbreak of guerilla warfare and NATO intervention.

Howard Clark
15 October 2014
Slobodan Milošević

Slobodan Milošević. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.In the early 1990s, while the republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina fought wars to leave Yugoslavia, Albanians in the autonomous province of Kosovo took a different path.[i] Warnings that war was imminent in Yugoslavia were sounded from 1989 onwards when the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević set about effectively abolishing the status of autonomy that Kosovo (population around 2 million) had been accorded under the 1974 Yugoslav constitution.[ii] The situation in Kosovo was not promising for any form of resistance, yet a movement was active in 1990–8 that sought not only to defend the rights of the Albanian majority population in Kosovo and to avoid war: it also demanded independence for Kosovo. Prudence was a major factor determining the choice and character of non-violent action in Kosovo: however, this strategy became too passive and, ultimately, failed to avert war. Armed hostilities began in Kosovo in 1998 and concluded with the NATO military campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) in 1999. Although international bodies had ruled out independence as an option for Kosovo in 1991–2,[iii] international military intervention, when it eventually came in 1999, was not neutral but in reality ended Serbian rule in Kosovo and paved the way for a ‘managed process’ of independence, including the February 2008 Declaration of Independence.

Neither the criminal nature of Milošević’s project of ‘re-Serbianization’, nor the determination of close to 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population not to live under Belgrade, induced a change of international policy until there was armed conflict. This article therefore centres on the widespread perception - especially dominant in Kosovo itself - that armed struggle succeeded where civil resistance failed. In particular it asks:

-       What were the achievements and limitations of civil resistance?

-       In a situation where non-cooperation had little leverage, what was the potential for ‘active non-violence’?

Historical survey:

Nationalisms on the rise 

The largest non-Slav ethnic group in Yugoslavia consisted of Albanians.[iv] Most of them lived in Kosovo: they comprised about two-thirds of the population of Kosovo from 1948–61 (rising to perhaps 90 per cent by 1991). From 1969 onwards, President Tito, apologizing for previous anti-Albanian discrimination, introduced Albanian-language secondary and university education and granted Kosovo the status of ‘autonomous province’. This raised Albanian expectations whilst provoking Serbian reaction. Although enjoying a ‘cultural renaissance’, Kosovo Albanians complained about Kosovo’s poverty; their conditions remained worse than those of Kosovo Serbs. When their frustration erupted in 1981, federal troops cracked down. Henceforth Kosovo Albanians were under suspicion of ‘irredentism’.[v]

Repression of Albanians did not assuage Serbian resentment of ‘Albanization’.[vi] Serbian nationalism made Kosovo its central symbol, denouncing the ‘expulsion’ of Serbs and ‘cultural genocide’ while vilifying Albanians as ‘rapists’.[vii] Furthermore, Kosovo’s autonomy epitomized the ‘weak Serbia, strong Yugoslavia’ line attributed to the 1974 Yugoslav constitution.[viii] Milošević took control in Serbia in 1987–9 by allying himself with this rising nationalism. Kosovo’s autonomy was dismantled in 1989 and 1990 and a host of anti-Albanian regulations introduced, with a promise to ‘re-Serbianize’ Kosovo. Measures such as imposing the Serbian language and curriculum were accompanied by an effort to redress the demographic balance: offering incentives to Serbs to settle while harassing Albanians to leave.

The beginnings of non-violence 

Kosovo Albanians did not adopt strategic non-violence until 1990. However, even before that the miners were steadfastly non-violent in defending Kosovo’s autonomy—first their ‘long march’ from the pitheads to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, in the snow of November 1988, and then their six-day stay-in strike in February 1989. These inspired spontaneous mass demonstrations both inside Kosovo and also in Slovenia and Croatia.

Briefly, there flickered a hope that the organized strength of industrial workers could defeat Milošević, especially when his newly appointed provincial leaders resigned to end the six-day strike in February 1989. Instead, Milošević rejected the resignations, convinced the federal presidency to impose a state of ‘exception’, and arrested suspected ringleaders. This provoked other strikes that were snuffed out by sending every striker a letter threatening arrest or dismissal. It later became plain that Milošević did not need Albanian labour and was prepared to let economic production in Kosovo collapse. Eventually, more than 80 per cent of employed Albanians would lose their jobs.[ix]

On 23 March 1989, the Kosovo Assembly, surrounded by the armoured vehicles of federal security forces and with armed men intimidating deputies inside the chamber, voted for constitutional amendments annulling key aspects of Kosovo’s autonomy. For the rest of 1989 protests repeatedly degenerated into clashes between armed police and protesters throwing stones or petrol bombs or sometimes using firearms. At least thirty-two protesters were killed in January 1990. The turn to non-violence would require greater organization and a persuasive methodology of action.

In 1990–2, Serbian acts of violence convinced Kosovo Albanians that Milošević wanted to provoke war. In March 1990 there were reprisals against local Serbs after the most emotive episode—the alleged poisoning of 7,600 school pupils.[x] However, in this explosive situation, an alternative strategy emerged. The miners’ actions of 1988 and 1989 offered an example of struggle without arms: when Serbian media were dominated by anti-Albanian ‘hatespeak’, they communicated ‘we are not as you present us’. The 1989 ‘velvet revolutions’ elsewhere in eastern Europe suggested that maybe the West would be favourable to non-violence, ‘the modern European preference’. Many Kosovo Albanians—especially the young and urban—aspired to be modern Europeans and targeted ‘backwardness’ in campaigns against blood feuding and women’s illiteracy. Not least there was an assertion of pluralist values after the years of communism.

New Kosovo-wide organizations were formed in December 1989—the non-party Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms (CDHRF) and the Democratic League for Kosova (LDK). The CDHRF, chaired by Adem Demaçi, became the main monitoring centre on human rights violations and police maltreatment; the LDK became a national movement claiming hundreds of thousands of members and led by Ibrahim Rugova. Initially the LDK did not advocate non-violence, but soon there was a transformation in popular attitudes. ‘Non-violence imposed itself.’[xi] It was not pacifism (principled rejection of lethal force) but strategic non-violence, a practical alternative to war or submission.

The new organizations took charge—principally the LDK, but also the CDHRF, the independent trade union federation, and a circle (including the Youth Parliament), generally known as the ‘Kosova Alternative’. A voice for pluralism, the Kosova Alternative continually sought to raise issues that went beyond ‘the national question’. This increasing degree of organization of the non-violent movement, and the negative experience of violent protest, convinced people that violence would be catastrophic. Inside Kosovo (but not in the diaspora), the tiny Marxist-Leninist/Enverist sects became isolated, especially when their most emblematic figure, Adem Demaçi (the ‘Albanian Mandela’, first imprisoned in 1958), declared his support for ‘non-violent resistance and the democratic option’.[xii]

The crucial first step in shifting to non-violent methods was ‘naming the violence’ of the regime, collecting and publishing evidence, and developing forms of ‘semi-resistance’, especially to mark killings—through actions such as lighting candles or ‘homages’ (five-minute work stoppages). Above all, after an incident such as police raiding a village, organizers went to collect evidence, show solidarity and explain why it was important to avoid a violent response. Two campaigns deepened the non-violence:

1. The petition ‘For Democracy, Against Violence’, published in January 1990. In June, Rugova and the petition’s initiator, Veton Surroi, presented 400,000 signatures (nearly 40 per cent of the adult population) at the UN in New York, establishing Kosovo’s non-violent credentials internationally.

2. The Campaign to Reconcile Blood Feuds, which began in February 1990. Students searched out feuds, and then older leaders would arrive to persuade families to participate in public ceremonies of forgiveness ‘in the name of the people, youth and the flag’. Within two years, 2,000 feuds were reconciled.[xiii]

Initially a counsel of realism, non-violence became, said Rugova, ‘not only a necessity but also a choice’:

‘By means of this active resistance based on non-violence and solidarity, we ‘found’ ourselves. Today, we have succeeded in touching this point of the spirit of the Albanian people...Oppressed, but organized...this is the first time [Kosovo Albanians] feel that they have a power . . . that they feel citizens despite the occupation.’[xiv]


As Yugoslavia disintegrated, Kosovo Albanian demands evolved, from defending autonomy (1988–9) to demanding to become ‘an equal unit in Yugoslavia’ (July 1990). Finally, after Slovenia and Croatia declared secession, Albanian members of the Kosovo Assembly met clandestinely in Kaçanik, near Macedonia, and on 22 September 1991 issued a Declaration of Independence. This was promptly endorsed by a self-organized referendum, taking place between 26 and 30 September, in which virtually the entire Albanian electorate of Kosovo voted in favour of independence. They saw their future as outside rump-Yugoslavia (i.e. Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—Serbia and Montenegro); they were entitled to govern themselves. This stance could not be abandoned prior to negotiations, although—as LDK vice- president Fehmi Agani indicated—there was room for manoeuvre if the essential point was recognized that they should not live under Serbian domination.

Invariably after meeting diplomats, Rugova reported international concern for human rights and respect for Kosovo’s non-violence, never mentioning the flat rejection of independence or complaints that children’s education was being sacrificed for an impossible goal. Rather, Kosovo Albanians proceeded with the strategy of ‘political as if ’.[xv] They were acting as if they had their independent state in order to bring it about.

In May 1992 a parliament and a president (Rugova) were elected. However, the main symbol of the independent state was the parallel school system with, at its peak, more than 20,000 teachers and 350,000 students from primary to university level. Backing this was voluntary tax collection, levying funds from businesses and families inside and outside Kosovo.


Although the non-violent struggle is identified with Rugova and the LDK, others played a vital role in the turn to non-violence; and the parallel education and health structures were originally largely self-organized. However, following the May 1992 ‘parallel’ elections, Rugova’s style of leadership became less collegiate and the LDK ceased to be a forum for strategic discussion.

In 1994 prime-minister-in-exile Bujar Bukoshi publicly criticized Rugova’s ‘passivity’, while the ‘political prisoners’ faction’—headed by Demaçi outside the LDK and Hydajet Hyseni inside—bemoaned the struggle’s ‘stagnation’. Meanwhile Veton Surroi, intent on challenging LDK hegemony through publishing a weekly magazine Koha (and later the daily Koha Ditore), re-entered the fray.[xvi] To their intense frustration, Rugova rarely answered his critics, assuming greater authority through being ‘above debate’. Increasingly remote, he depended on two or three unelected advisers plus the hard-working and approachable Agani.

When the Dayton negotiations (November 1995) focused on Bosnia and did not ‘reward’ Kosovo’s non-violence, criticism of Rugova spread. The term ‘active non-violence’ gained currency, promoted by figures such as LDK co-vice-president Hydajet Hyseni, but more widely discussed outside the LDK, including by Demaçi who in 1996 entered party politics as leader of the Parliamentary Party. Most tangibly this meant resuming protests (suspended in 1992), convening the parliament and reclaiming school buildings.

After the 1992 suspension, the first protest to be held was a candlelit demonstration in April 1996 by the LDK Women’s Forum, defying their own party, to mark the random shooting of an Albanian student in Prishtina. Then in September 1996, the university students’ union (UPSUP) proposed demonstrations to reopen education buildings, but were dissuaded by Rugova who had just signed an education agreement with Milošević. A year later, however, it was a different story.

In September 1997, to test feeling, UPSUP urged students to join Prishtina’s evening promenades. Many did, sparking enthusiasm about the planned march to ‘reclaim’ university buildings. Rugova again asked UPSUP not to proceed, but—while politely showing respect for his presidential authority—they insisted on their rights both to education and to protest. Soon UPSUP received the most high-powered delegation yet to visit Kosovo—diplomats from twelve countries headed by the ambassadors of the US, Britain, and the Netherlands (as EU President of turn): they urged postponement, inadvertently confirming UPSUP’s analysis that the world pays more attention to protest than passivity.

The first student demonstration was a model non-violent confrontation. On 1 October, the start of the university year, wearing white shirts and with a non-violent code of discipline, 15,000 students marched towards the university. Stopped by police, the front line remained standing to receive baton blows while those behind sat down. And then the police attacked. This drama became world news, foreign diplomats feted UPSUP while Belgrade students—veterans of daily anti-Milošević demonstrations in winter 1996–7—sent solidarity messages and some came to Prishtina to support the November protest.

This glimpse of an alternative non-violent strategy came too late to change the course of events. On 28 November 1997 UÇK (Kosova Liberation Army) soldiers ‘appeared’ at a village funeral, scotching the denial of their existence by Rugova and others. ‘To give political forces a last chance’, Demaçi proposed a three-month UÇK ceasefire—but in vain. Skirmishes escalated until the Drenica massacres in 1998 (see below), after which thousands of recruits flocked to the UÇK. Foreign journalists set out to track down ‘the army of the shadows’. More than 400,000 people were displaced during 1998, although there was no fighting in the main cities where the regime—after initial repression—tolerated the repeated demonstrations, perhaps as a safety valve.

Although international pressure brought a ceasefire in October 1998, all sides expected a reconflagration in spring 1999. When the presence of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) and the Rambouillet conference (February–March 1999) failed to forestall this, NATO began what turned out to be a seventy-eight-day bombing campaign against targets in Kosovo and throughout FRY, while UÇK fought on the ground in Kosovo. Kosovo Albanians welcomed the NATO intervention despite the fact that, in the short term, the war provided an environment convenient for ‘ethnic cleansing’ to proceed against them. 

The war ended in June 1999 when Serbia agreed to withdraw its forces and Kosovo was placed under the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Many Serbs had already fled; thousands of those remaining were subjected to eviction, or worse, by returning Albanians in the post-war law-and-order vacuum of summer 1999.[xvii] When the situation was sufficiently ‘normalized’ for elections to proceed, the LDK won the 2000 municipal and the 2001 Kosovo Assembly elections: Rugova was still the politician most trusted by Kosovo Albanians. However, the killings of three key advisers—including Agani—rendered his post-war leadership even less dynamic than before, and UNMIK officials considered him the party leader least helpful on ‘minority issues’.[xviii] Of the Serbs (and other non-Albanians) who fled Kosovo in 1999, only a small proportion have returned (about 8,000 Serbs)—and Serbs living in Kosovo continue to complain of lack of security and freedom of movement inside the territory.

Military options 

In the early 1990s, Kosovo Albanians were publicly ‘on message’ in support of non-violence. Yet not everyone was convinced. Some left, some fought in Bosnia or Croatia (including future UÇK general and prime minister Agim Çeku). Others stayed, accommodating themselves to non-violence while preparing for war.

In 1991 Croatia’s President Tudjman urged Kosovo to open a ‘second front’ against Serbia, and formed special Croatian army units with 400 Albanian soldiers for deployment there.[xix] They were disbanded when this patently self-interested ‘offer’ was rejected as suicidal. However, Rugova’s policy was not pacifist: rather, he was courting more powerful allies. In December 1991 the Bush administration threatened to meet Serbian aggression with bombing—a threat repeated in February 1992 under Clinton—apparently guaranteeing the non-violent strategy armed protection.

Despite public denials, Rugova himself countenanced military preparations. One local analyst remarked in private that, looking at Bosnia, Rugova would have been negligent not to have a contingency plan. In 1993, former army officers were arrested and imprisoned for ‘organizing a parallel Ministry of Defence’. They denied charges, but in 1999 their leader, Hajzer Hajzeraj, confirmed that he had indeed been minister of defence in 1991–3, authorized by Rugova and meeting periodically with Agani.[xx] The former provincial head of Territorial Defence, Hajzeraj’s role was to revive these structures for ‘self-protection’. Upon Hajzeraj’s imprisonment, prime-minister-in-exile Bukoshi continued the planning, ultimately forming the FARK (Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosova), which emerged belatedly in 1998 offering an alternative to the UÇK. FARK was eventually absorbed into the UÇK.[xxi]

The UÇK was not established to protect civilians but to instigate a general uprising. Founded by small diaspora groups cooperating with people inside Kosovo, including the Jashari family, the UÇK also had members in both the LDK and the CDHRF.[xxii] From 1996 to mid-January 1998, the UÇK claimed to have killed twenty-one people, eleven Albanian ‘collaborators’ and ten Serbs (five police). It comprised perhaps 300 trained members.[xxiii]

The massacres in the Drenica region in central Kosovo ended non-violent struggle in the villages and made the UÇK a central player. On 28 February 1998, Serbian special forces in helicopters and armoured vehicles attacked Likoshane village without warning, killing twenty-six people, including eleven unarmed men in the Ahmeti household.[xxiv] The Ahmeti men, as advised during the non-violent struggle, waited inside, helpless but with nothing to hide. They were taken outside, beaten, then executed. UÇK involvement is unclear, although police claimed to be ‘pursuing terrorists’. In contrast, a week later, the Jasharis of Prekaz became folk heroes. Their men died fighting Serbian forces, a girl survivor remembering her uncle Adem singing patriotic songs to the last. Some fifty-seven people died in the attack on their family compound, but the UÇK now had a legend of epic martyrdom.

The LDK corporately—and its president personally—entered into a period of acute political paralysis, while the UÇK had more recruits than it could handle. ‘We are all UÇK’ was the new slogan. Rugova’s rivals competed with each other to become its ‘political voice’. Despite the antipathy between the LDK and UÇK leaderships, most Kosovo Albanians ‘saw no contradiction between supporting both Rugova and the [UÇK]’.[xxv]

Achievements and limitations:

For Tim Judah, ‘passive resistance’ was ‘an extraordinary experiment’ that failed.[xxvi] James Pettifer, acknowledging the earlier ‘power and value’ of non- violence, believes ‘the willingness of the [UÇK] soldiers . . . to die had achieved more in two years than the [LDK] had in ten’.[xxvii] Such judgements, however, need measuring against other factors—objectives, costs, options, possibilities.

The policy of non-violence was relatively successful in pursuing three interim objectives.

1. Maintaining the Albanian community and way of life in Kosovo. Kosovo Albanians demonstrated a social solidarity not seen earlier (or since). ‘The cause of schooling’, comments Kostovicova, ‘turned Albanians into a community of solidarity.’[xxviii] Health was another critical area, especially as half Kosovo’s Albanian physicians were sacked. The parallel medical network expanded continuously, eventually maintaining ninety health clinics and a gynaecological unit.

2. Preventing war when it was most dangerous. By not threatening violence, Kosovo Albanians let the anti-Albanian frenzy of 1989–90 abate. War weariness took its toll in Serbia, while leading nationalist intellectuals (including former FRY President Ćosić) began to see the attempt to ‘reclaim’ Kosovo as self-defeating. Refusing provocation also created space for international measures to prevent war. The huge disproportion between the meagre resources applied to prevention before 1998 and the major amounts consumed by NATO and the international post-war operation is a damning comment on the world security agenda. Kosovo saw a striking contrast in governmental attitudes to ‘interference’—between governments’ unwillingness to support social programmes associated with non-violent struggle, and their readiness to overcome qualms about assisting armed groups. When NATO needed a ground ally, there was little hesitation in helping the UÇK become more effective.

3. Winning international support against the regime. Lobbying on human rights brought international pressure against Serbia (the ‘outer wall of sanctions’ maintained after Dayton) and some disposition to ‘protect’ Kosovo, especially by the US (military threats, plus opening the US Information Office—a quasi-embassy in Prishtina—in 1996).

These three achievements, however, still left Kosovo under rule from Belgrade. International diplomacy tended to view Kosovo in terms of ‘containment’, urging Albanians to settle for full autonomy within FRY. A year of armed conflict and Serbian atrocities changed that. By the time of Rambouillet, Fehmi Agani was already talking about Serbia’s defeat: “the real defeat of Serbia was a political defeat, and this was achieved by the LDK. It was not enough, but the [UÇK] emerged at a time when Serbia had already become a strange presence in Kosovo. The ground was prepared for them.”[xxix]

Thus civil resistance could be justified as a phase preparing more favourable conditions for armed struggle, achieving vital objectives at a time when armed struggle would have been disastrous.

The more complex comparison between achievements of civil resistance and armed struggle is about the situation after the stagnation of civil resistance. Claims that the UÇK ‘empowered’ the population should be treated with caution. Theirs was a ‘victim’ discourse: UÇK members on trial denied rather than defended their politics.[xxx] It is often claimed that the UÇK’s main achievement was engineering NATO intervention by provoking Serbian forces to commit atrocities.[xxxi] However, three comments are in order. First, that NATO intervention was not the declared intention of the UÇK. Their rhetoric was of ‘liberation struggle’ and ‘popular uprising’. Elements of the UÇK even lacked the strategic sense to desist from attacking the OSCE’s KVM. However, ultimately the UÇK acceded to the longstanding consensus on the need for outside help in ending Serbian rule and gladly cooperated with NATO.

Second should be noted the willingness of the UÇK to put unarmed Albanians at risk. Agani commented that of the roughly 2,000 Albanians killed in 1998, probably only 5 per cent were UÇK members. Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch has observed:

“The KLA’s [UÇK’s] disregard for ethnic Albanian civilians is also striking. Villages declared ‘liberated’ by the KLA were often smashed shortly thereafter by the Serbian security forces, who vented their anger on the civilians who did not retreat into the hills with the KLA. Ambushes of police or army checkpoints often provoked a response against the nearest village, if the KLA was based there or not. The pattern of KLA behavior suggests that the rebels, relying on the predictable aggressiveness and brutality of the Serbian forces, may have deliberately provoked attacks against ethnic Albanian civilians, since innocent victims would promote their cause.”[xxxii]

The UÇK not only targeted ‘collaborators’ but also practised intimidation: on a number of occasions, village leaders were punished for pleading with the UÇK to stay away, recognizing that their presence would provoke attack without offering protection.[xxxiii] Third, the UÇK undid some of the gains of civil resistance, it is arguable, especially through its record of serious human rights violations. Immediately after the war, when the UÇK was the only armed body capable of stopping ‘revenge violence’, its members played a leading role in the expulsion of Serbs.[xxxiv] The subsequent lack of safety of Serbs in Kosovo strengthened the Serbian case, if not for partition then for major concessions in UN envoy Ahtisaari’s plan of March 2007 for the ‘supervised independence’ of Kosovo. Ahtisaari also indicated concern about the role of UÇK cadres by recommending the disbanding of their symbolic post-war stronghold—the Kosovo Protection Corps (a civil emergency corps formed mostly of UÇK veterans).[xxxv]

A case for 'active non-violence':

‘Prudence’ and ‘patience’ were Rugova’s watchwords. They served well when prudence was combined with action—finding spaces for ‘semi-resistance’: noise-making at curfew, brief work stoppages, wearing armbands. The decision to organize their own schooling was prudent: daily protests (and daily police violence) at schools were unsustainable. However, towards the end of 1992—days when the US was sufficiently alarmed to threaten air strikes—the LDK suspended street demonstrations. A temporary moratorium might have offered a useful strategic lull: this permanent risk avoidance, however, produced a profoundly demoralizing quiescence. Without the outlet of more assertive action, resentment and frustration simply accumulated, making the situation more explosive.

In contrast the 1997 UPSUP protests made parents proud of their student offspring, found allies even in Serbia, and showed that following the advice of foreign diplomats was not necessarily the way to gain an international hearing. UÇK soldiers were not the only people willing to die for Kosovo: at a time when police and paramilitary harassment was widespread, activists such as local human rights reporters and the 1,000 voluntary tax collectors raising money for the parallel education system were especially in danger. However, the UPSUP protests were the only occasions when non-violent Kosovo Albanians consciously courted violence in order to dramatize their situation. Could a strategy of ‘active non-violence’ have challenged Serbian domination more effectively and created better conditions for peaceful coexistence?

Civil resistance against occupation is a ‘battle of wills’, suggests Robert Burrowes, paralleling Clausewitz on war: ‘the strategic aim of the defence is to consolidate the power and will of the defending population to resist the aggression’. Some would say the counter-offensive’s strategic aim is ‘undermining the power’ of the regime but Burrowes is more precise: ‘to alter the will of the opponent elite to conduct the aggression’, recognizing that undermining power might be one means for this.[xxxvi] Kosovo Albanians had little hope of undermining Milošević: far from depending on them, he wanted them to leave and was even willing to abandon Kosovo’s industry. This was a profound weakness for civil resistance. Their strength, however, was in their own will, the resilience and solidarity of the community. ‘The Serbs tried to kill our society, but we woke up instead’, commented a sacked radio journalist who threw herself into organizing women’s literacy programmes. As well as the schools and health clinics, so many small businesses—mainly retail—had opened that by 1994 Kosovo was better stocked than sanctions-hit Belgrade.

However, by 1994, this initial sense of empowerment was wearing thin. The problem was not Serbian ruthlessness. Milošević never seriously interfered with the operations of the LDK nor even tried divide-and-rule tactics. Rather, the problem was a lack of strategy, both to maintain their own momentum and to alter the regime’s will.

‘Active non-violence’ was never spelt out as a coherent alternative policy. The common points among its advocates were preparing selected non-violent confrontations and greater mobilization of community resources. If non-cooperation had only symbolic purchase, then other forms of action needed to be pursued with more energy. To this might be added, controversially, two other approaches that could have yielded results: first, greater contact with the opposition in Serbia; and second, greater flexibility on goals—a point on which Demaçi isolated himself by proposing a re-federation with three equal republics (Kosovo, Serbia, and Montenegro).

Diplomats found Rugova exasperatingly stubborn in his demand for independence—despite his flexibility from 1993 onwards in proposing an interim UN protectorate. His local critics, however, perceived him as being far too compliant on methods. A more assertive approach was typified first by the journalists’ hunger strike, led by Demaçi in 1993 and gaining internationally negotiated concessions, and later by the UPSUP protests of 1997.

The obvious non-violent confrontation that Rugova eschewed was to convene parliament. Electing their parliament in 1992 had felt empowering for Kosovo Albanians; its failure to meet for six years was absolutely the reverse. The risk would have been confined to 130 elected leaders—surely people who should be in the front line—presenting Milošević with the dilemma ‘let our parliament function, or show the world how you deny democracy’. As UPSUP’s experience demonstrated, engaging in non-violent confrontation could have accelerated the learning process of foreign diplomats who failed to understand the Serbian project or who thought that Albanians might resign themselves to being subordinate to Serbia.

If the LDK would not stage confrontations at least it should have mobilized constructive activity. Establishing the parallel schools and university provided a base. However, instead of encouraging further initiatives, the LDK reined in youth—even denying its own youth organization a seat in the party’s council. Meanwhile, on the central question of the economy, laissez-faire ruled. The self-proclaimed ‘Republic of Kosova’ was haemorrhaging money to Serbia: an estimated $US1 million per day was spent on importing food products from Serbia to Kosovo.[xxxvii] There were no coordinated efforts to reduce this dependence. Starting micro-enterprises to process locally grown food would have provoked some police vandalism and harassment. However, if ‘prudence’ is to be useful, it means not avoiding risks but assessing and managing them, putting possibilities to the test. Too often initiatives were blocked by a self-victimizing attitude that something was impossible because of ‘the Serbs’.

To change Serb opinion, the LDK strategy relied on two types of leverage: attrition and international pressure. Attrition was exerted simply by staying put. Milošević, far from attracting new settlers, could not stop Serbs leaving Kosovo. Leaders in the 1980s anti-Albanian mobilization—the Serbian Academy, the Orthodox Church, and some Kosovo Serbs—began to look for compromise. Rugova reasoned that, provided Milošević was not given some excuse to attack, international pressure and demographic realities should bring independence. Such ‘prudence’, however, left the population not relying on their own efforts, but waiting for somebody else and ‘enduring’.

Kosovo Albanians expected international concern for human rights to overrule Serbian claims on Kosovo. They were sceptical about their own capacity to influence Serbian opinion or cultivate Serbian allies. Hence Rugova, having announced in 1994 the planned opening of a Kosovo bureau in Belgrade, decided that even this would be counter-productive.

Various Kosovo Albanians maintained contacts in Serbia, even arranging public talks with opposition spokespeople, but saw little prospect of gaining leverage. In general the concept of building ‘a chain of non-violence’—in which one circle of connections leads to another and a growth of influence—was missing.[xxxviii] There were signs of movement in Serbia, and reason to hope for more—although, realistically, not enough to make a decisive difference in ‘the battle of wills’. However, the ‘chain of non-violence’ is not a concept confined to non-violent struggle: it also helps to prepare sustainable coexistence with neighbours. In struggle against an ethnic adversary, non-violence cannot simply aim to ‘win’. Cross-community linkages should be valued in themselves, not just as points of leverage or ways of seeking allies, but also as laying the ground for shared understandings and relationships that can restrain escalation to war and help prepare a reasonable settlement.

Some people understood this well. However, it was an unpopular approach that at one point marginalized Surroi and Maliqi (already considered ‘too Yugoslav’). Demaçi and Hyseni had similar attitudes but—as long-term political prisoners—different credentials: the first Serbs they publicly praised were those who had helped them endure prison. Then in 1993 when Belgrade opposition leader Vuk Drašković was publicly beaten by Milošević’s thugs, Demaçi sent him a message of sympathy. In 1996, he sent another message, supporting Belgrade’s anti-Milošević demonstrators. The LDK-aligned newspaper Bujku mocked this, although at the 16 December rally Drašković did something previously unimaginable in Belgrade, calling a minute’s silence for the latest Albanian death in police custody in Kosovo. Ethnic blinkers, such as those of Bujku, were widespread, even shared by most UPSUP leaders: when Patriarch Pavle condemned Serbian police brutality against the students, UPSUP’s response predictably focused on his suggestion that they should accept Serbian rule. Then the Belgrade paper Naša Borba awarded UPSUP its Prize for Tolerance 1997 without any objectionable comments, yet still the students declined to collect it. Ethnic polarization increasingly vitiated the prospects of non-violence, both in terms of strategy and in terms of future coexistence, obstructing efforts to expand any zone of goodwill between the two communities in Kosovo, or even between Kosovo Albanians and Belgrade oppositionists.


When Kosovo Albanians turned to non-violence, some tried to invest the goal of independence with a democratizing content of pluralism and reforming patriarchal traditions. A decade before the UN invited Kosovo to achieve certain standards before the question of status could be resolved, many Kosovo Albanians took the attitude that in order to gain independence they would show themselves worthy of it, practising the values proclaimed in their own constitution, especially respect for minority rights. Many local and sectoral leaders were scrupulously ‘correct’ towards ordinary Kosovo Serbs, seeking to serve as role models and reassuring Serbs that they would have a place and rights under independence. Perhaps with greater international engagement at an earlier stage, this attitude could have been maintained, escalation to war prevented and the prospects for multi-ethnic coexistence improved. However, the experience of repression propelled popular feeling in a different direction.

The situation generated hatred. Some local Serbs had been activists fomenting anti-Albanian feeling since the 1980s; some became paramilitaries. Others were at least beneficiaries of Milošević’s policies, had not protested when Albanian colleagues were sacked or children shut out of schools, and might serve as police reservists, taking part in dawn raids on villages. The educational segregation imposed by Serbs created breeding grounds for ‘prejudice, charged with animosity and inviting revenge’.[xxxix] While the parallel schools helped stabilize Albanian society, the growing frustration of pupils and students within the parallel system plus the content of the teaching contributed to the explosive potential of the situation.[xl]

Rugova’s counsel of ‘self-restraint’, based more on fear than on hope, was increasingly disconnected from practising the values of a desired future. Thus, while it postponed the outbreak of physical hostility, it could not combat the hardening of ethnic polarization. Kosovo Albanians began to feel that their ‘self-restraint’ was being taken for granted. There were predictions of war from 1988 onwards, yet only when the conflict escalated into war did powerful international actors apply themselves to devising new responses—such as the Kosovo Verification Mission improvised after the 1998 ceasefire—but too late to have much effect.

Kosovo Albanians remained grateful that NATO drove out the Serbian occupying forces. However, by 2007, after almost a decade of UN administration, most citizens believed that Kosovo’s new institutions were corrupt.[xli] Organized crime was endemic. The main political parties were not democratic, had little vision beyond ‘independence’, and readily resorted to intimidation. The ‘Unity Team’— the Albanian negotiating team in the talks up to 2008 on Kosovo’s future status— was all-male. Most Kosovo Albanians still depended on remittances from abroad and spent this money mainly on imports. With unemployment over 40 per cent, much young talent had simply left or had plans to emigrate.[xlii]

Faced by a deadlock in negotiations on the status of Kosovo, in February 2008 the Kosovo Assembly passed a new Declaration of Independence, more than sixteen years after the first. This time, however, while the objections of Russia and Serbia deny UN membership to Kosovo, the self-proclaimed independence has wide recognition—including from the US and most members of the European Union—and promises of practical support. Nevertheless the real challenge is not to attain the status of independence, but to restore values and revive hope.

The case of Kosovo shows civil resistance functioning when other forms of resistance would have been disastrous. However, it then shows the need for civil resistance strategy to renew itself, to build on the basis established, to innovate in its own community and to pose new challenges to the adversary. In hindsight, civil resistance appears now to have been a phase through which Kosovo Albanians survived repression and succeeded in convincing the world of the injustice and inhumanity of Belgrade’s politics. Finally and belatedly, once armed struggle was underway, the Kosovo Albanian patience was ‘rewarded’ with an unprecedented military intervention by NATO and later by the unprecedented recognition of an independence that for years they had been told was inconceivable.

Republished from H. Clark, ‘The Limits of Prudence: Civil Resistance in Kosovo 1990-98’ in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds) Civil Resistance and Power Politics, OUP 2009, pp.277-94. All rights reserved. This work is the copyright of Oxford University Press.

[i] The use of the anglicized term ‘Kosovo’ implies no position on its status. The Albanian majority in the territory call it ‘Kosova’.

[ii] Until 1991 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia comprised six republics: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. The 1974 constitution had recognized Kosovo (and also Vojvodina) as autonomous provinces within the republic of Serbia. Although Kosovo and Vojvodina thus constituted entities within one republic, they participated directly in the federal presidency alongside the six republics of Yugoslavia. In the early 1990s Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the republic of Macedonia broke away from the federation, leaving only Serbia and Montenegro as the republics comprising the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Following Montenegro’s independence in 2006, the remaining state was called simply ‘Serbia’: the term ‘Yugoslavia’ was no longer in official use.

[iii] It was because Kosovo did not have the status of a republic that the European Community’s Badinter Commission ruled in its report of 11 Jan. 1992 that Kosovo had no right to secede.

[iv] In this article, all references to Albanians are to the Albanian population of Kosovo, not to the citizens of the neighbouring state of Albania.

[v] ‘Irredentism’ means a policy of seeking the reunion to one country (in this case Albania) of a region (e.g. Kosovo) currently subject to another country, and was regarded as ‘treason’ in former Yugoslavia. There were and are tendencies in Kosovo that ultimately aspire to the ‘reunification’ of all Albanians—those from former Yugoslavia and from Albania—in one political entity. However, few have seen this as a practical political option. Since the disintegration of Yugoslavia, there has been a broad consensus among Kosovo Albanians in favour of ‘independence within the present borders’. Opinion polls for the UN Development Programme in 2006 and 2007 indicate up to 96% of Kosovo Albanians support this status, as against no more than 3.5% supporting unification with Albania. See successive issues of Early Warning Report Kosovo at

[vi] ‘Albanization’ as viewed by Serbs encompassed changed demographic balance, bilingualism in public administration, Albanian publishing and broadcasting, Albanian street names and statues, and use of the Albanian flag. An authoritative account of this controversial period is the study by Momčilo Pavlović on ‘Kosovo Under Autonomy 1974–1990’ (Feb. 2005) which can be found in the section on the Former Yugoslavia Scholars’ Initiative on the website of the Salzburg Seminar’s Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation,

[vii] Wendy Bracewell, ‘Rape in Kosovo: Masculinity and Serbian Nationalism’, Nations and Nationalism, 6, no. 4 (Oct. 2000), 563–90, discusses Serbian ‘rape panic’.

[viii] For instance, under the 1974 constitution the votes of the two ‘autonomous provinces’—Kosovo and Vojvodina—outweighed that of their ‘parent’ republic, Serbia, on the nine-member federal presidency.

[ix] The figures compiled by BSPK, the independent trade union federation formed in 1990, indicate that of a total of 164,025 Kosovo Albanians employed in 1990, 146,025 were dismissed. Miners were especially seriously hit—all but 300 were dismissed. National and Social Discrimination of the Albanian Workers in Kosova (mimeo, no date, collected from BSPK office, Prishtina, Nov. 1997).

[x] Pupils reported symptoms of ‘neuro-intoxication’—fainting, spasms, nausea, drowsiness— caused, believe Albanians, by a chemical weapon such as Sarin. The authorities and Serbs in general dismissed this as at best ‘mass hysteria’, at worst a politically orchestrated sham. Beliefs about this are reviewed in Julie A. Mertus, Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1999), 187–98.

[xi] Shkëlzen Maliqi, Kosova: Separate Worlds—Reflections and Analyses (Prishtina/Peja: MM Society and Dukagjini, 1998), 101.

[xii] Ibid., 32. The term ‘Enverist’ identifies these groups with Enver Hoxha (1908–85), the leader of the ruling Albanian Party of Labour from 1944 to 1985, although these groups were repudiated by him and his successors in the government of Albania.

[xiii] Howard Clark, Civil Resistance in Kosovo (London: Pluto, 2000) includes more detail on non-violent initiatives mentioned in this article.

[xiv] Ibrahim Rugova, La Question du Kosovo: Entretiens réalisés par Marie-Françoise Allain et Xavier Galmiche (Paris: Fayard, 1994), 119, 130, & 175–6.

[xv] Noel Malcolm’s phrase in Kosovo: A Short History (London: Macmillan, 1998), 348.

[xvi] Surroi had resigned as Kosovo Youth Parliament leader in 1992.

[xvii] There is no reliable independent estimate of the number of non-Albanians who fled Kosovo in 1999. Belgrade government figures of around 200,000 are widely used but might well be exaggerated in view of Serbia’s political interests and refusal to accept UN help in revising its register of displaced people.

[xviii] Iain King and Whit Mason, Peace at any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo (London: Hurst, 2006), 207.

[xix] Tim Judah, Kosovo: War and Revenge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 113–14.

[xx] Zëri Digest (Prishtina), no. 1709, 2 Oct. 1999.

[xxi] Andreas Heinemann-Grüder and Wolf-Christian Paes, Wag the Dog: The Mobilization and Demobilization of the Kosova Liberation Army (Bonn: Bonn International Center for Conversion Brief 20/Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, 2001), 10–12. Some post-war killings between UÇK factions relate back to quarrels between the FARK and the UÇK.

[xxii] Two prominent ‘sleepers’ who emerged as UÇK field spokespeople in 1998 were Jakup Krasniqi (elected to the LDK board in February 1998 after years of local leadership) and Shaban Shala (elected CDHRF vice-president in 1997).

[xxiii] Clark, Civil Resistance in Kosovo, 172–3 & 250–1.

[xxiv] Humanitarian Law Violations in Kosovo (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998), 20.

[xxv] Judah, Kosovo: War and Revenge, 146.

[xxvi] Ibid. 59.

[xxvii] James Pettifer, Kosova Express: A Journey in Wartime (London: Hurst, 2005), 48 & 202. Comparatively few UÇK members died. Pettifer notes (190) that in the rout at Malisheva, July 1998, the UÇK ‘lost much territory, but few fighters’.

[xxviii] Denisa Kostovicova, Kosovo: The Politics of Identity and Space (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 112.

[xxix] Interview with Anthony Borden, Institute for War and Peace Reporting Balkan Crisis Bulletin, 32, 13 May 1999.

[xxx] Nait Hasani—the most prominent of a group of seventeen defendants—told the court: ‘I maintain that the peaceful approach . . . is still the best.’ Kosova Information Centre Daily (Prishtina), 16 Dec. 1997. 

[xxxi] James Gow, The Serbian Project and its Adversaries: A Strategy of War Crimes (London: Hurst, 2003) offers a different reading: Milošević decided in February 1997 to prepare a military campaign in Kosovo, implementing longstanding plans for ethnic cleansing. The UÇK merely provided a pretext. Ultimately, the ‘practical relevance’ of the UÇK —bearing in mind, its incoherence, weakness, and its lack of ‘independent capacity’—was as a ‘limited ground complement’ to NATO.

[xxxii] Fred Abrahams, Under Orders: War Crimes in Kosovo (New York, Human Rights Watch, 2001), 53.

[xxxiii] The most publicized occasion was the UÇK’s ‘arrest’ of two LDK officials in Malisheva on 31 Oct. 1998. Elsewhere families were evicted by the UÇK or opponents simply ‘eliminated’.

[xxxiv] Interviews with abducted Serbs who survived reveal arguments within the UÇK: some commanders restraining and others leading the torture and extra-judicial killing. See Abductions and Disappearances of non-Albanians in Kosovo (Belgrade: Humanitarian Law Center, 2001).

[xxxv] See ‘Report of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Kosovo’s future status’, UN doc. S/2007/168 of 26 Mar. 2007, Annex on ‘Main Provisions of the Comprehensive Proposal’, para. 9. 

[xxxvi] Robert Burrowes, The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1996), esp. ch. 8, 125–34.

[xxxvii] Economic Activities and Democratic Development of Kosova Research Report (Prishtina: Riinvest, 1998), 39.

[xxxviii] On ‘chain of non-violence’ see Johan Galtung, Nonviolence and Israel/Palestine (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Institute for Peace, 1989), ch. 2. Informed Albanians appreciated the work of various groups in Serbia, but regarded them as ‘marginal’. The ‘chain’ image, however, suggests that even ‘marginal’ groups have links.

[xxxix] Denisa Kostovicova, ‘Albanian Schooling in Kosovo 1992–1998: ‘‘Liberty Imprisoned’’’, in Kyril Drezov et al. (eds.), Kosovo: Myths, Conflict and War (Keele, Staffordshire: Keele European Research Centre, 1999), 15. 

[xl] Kostovicova, Kosovo: The Politics of Identity and Space, ch. 5, based on a study of textbooks, suggests that the history as taught strengthened a ‘victim’ nationalism that was ambivalent about non-violent resistance. 

[xli] Early Warning Report Kosovo, no. 17 (Apr.–June 2007), 30–1. Available at

[xlii] Early Warning Report Kosovo, no. 17 (Apr.–June 2007), unemployment, pp. 34–5, and intention to emigrate, p. 31. While the ‘unemployment rate’ has been calculated at 41.4%, this is in a context of low participation—especially of women—in the labour market. The ‘employment rate’ among working-age people in Kosovo is only 28.5%. Among the 18–24 age group, nearly 47% of Kosovo Albanians and more than 53% of Kosovo Serbs say they have plans to emigrate.


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