Kosova and the right of oppressed nations to self-determination

By Michael Karadjis

This is the second in a series of articles looking at aspects of the issue of the recently announced semi-independence of Kosova [Kosovo], which has produced markedly different reactions among left-wing and socialist movements around the world. (Click here for the first article in the series.)

This article will tackle the general question of the right to national self-determination, and why Kosova’s situation fully accords with this right long supported by the revolutionary left. While much more will be said of the role of imperialism and other factors in the following parts – including imperialism’s role precisely in limiting Kosovar self-determination – understanding this aspect is primary to developing an overall position.


Support of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination is a long-held principle for Marxists. Lenin in particular elaborated a great deal on this issue, and his writings remain of great relevance today.

Lenin stresses that even abolishing national oppression can only become reality “with the establishment of full democracy in all spheres, including the delineation of state frontiers in accordance with the `sympathies' of the population, including complete freedom to secede.” This is not in order to create small states, but on the contrary, only this can, dialectically, “serve as a basis for developing the practical elimination of even the slightest national friction and the least national mistrust, for an accelerated drawing together and fusion of nations …[1]

Thus this is all the more important when talking about capitalist states, the relationships between which are commonly characterised by national oppression. Lenin considered it self-evident that peoples will only revolt for independence if the conditions of national oppression are intolerable:

“From their daily experience the masses know perfectly well the value of geographical and economic ties and the advantages of a big market and a big state. They will, therefore, resort to secession only when national oppression and national friction make joint life absolutely intolerable and hinder any and all economic intercourse.[2]

Moreover, for all practical purposes, to oppose the right of self-determination means to support the right of the stronger nation to forcibly suppress their struggles:

“... in the capitalist state, repudiation of the right to self-determination, i.e., the right of nations to secede, means nothing more than defence of the privileges of the dominant nation and police methods of administration, to the detriment of democratic methods...”[3]

Far from being a concession to the narrow bourgeois aspect of the nationalism of the oppressed, it is only the right to full secession that is capable of undermining such nationalism:

“The right to self-determination and secession seems to ‘concede’ the maximum to nationalism” but “in reality, the recognition of the right of all nations to self-determination implies the maximum of democracy and the minimum of nationalism” because it helps promote the internationalist “class solidarity” of the workers of oppressor and oppressed nations.”[4]

But while many leftists accept this right in theory, some claim it is limited to struggles by oppressed peoples against imperialism, or at least that it depends on whether a particular struggle for national self-determination strengthens or weakens imperialist interests.

But this wasn’t how Lenin viewed it at all. When he supported Norway’s independence from Sweden it had no connection to either alleged condition. Even more starkly, recognising that the balance of class forces was against the working class in the Baltic states in 1918, Lenin chose not to send the Red Army of the young Soviet republic in to help the Communist forces in these republics, where right-wing regimes came to power. The Bolsheviks did not believe socialism could be imposed on the barrel of a gun; only the working classes in those states could carry out this task.

In the 1930s, following the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the revival of Great Russian oppression by the Stalinist regime, the issue again arose of the position revolutionaries would take towards movements for self-determination in the oppressed non-Russian republics. Trotsky’s view was clear. Calling for a “united, free, and independent workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine,” Trotsky pointed out that it was precisely the denial of the right to national self-determination of the Ukraine by a “Communist” regime that has shifted the Ukrainian national movement to “the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques,” who had won over a section of the Ukrainian working class. On the other hand, an independent Ukraine would become “if only by virtue of its own interests, a mighty southwestern bulwark of the USSR.”[5]

When one sees Kosovar Albanians wildly waving US flags next to their own Albanian flag – which, ironically enough, imperialism has forced them to abandon – one is reminded of this quote from Trotsky: it was not the exercise of Kosovar self-determination, but precisely the denial of it to the Kosovars, that allowed US imperialism – very belatedly – to pose as their champion when it found it opportune, leading to this marked pro-imperialist shift in the consciousness of Kosovar Albanians.

There is a basic “common sense” aspect to this right: given that people will only risk a struggle for independence when they find conditions unbearable, any opposition to their struggle from leftists will not only change nothing about their struggle, but alienate the left from this entire oppressed nation. Every claim that a particular national struggle may happen to coincide with some reactionary or imperialist interest can be countered by the simple fact that it was the oppression in the first place that produced this result. The masses of this oppressed nation will not move on to a more progressive, let alone socialist, consciousness, until they have achieved their right to run their own state and learn in practice that their “own” bourgeoisie is also their enemy.

The roots of Albanian oppression and resistance

In the 19th century, the Greek, Serbian and Bulgarian people had waged successful liberation struggles against the Ottoman empire and set up their own independent capitalist states – as today’s critics of Kosova might say, they carried out “illegal secession” that “violated Ottoman sovereignty.” However, a strip of the Balkans, covering the Albanian, Macedonian and Thracian regions, with a wide ethnic mixture, remained under Ottoman rule.

In 1912, the Albanian peoples rose in revolt against Ottoman rule. Aiming to grab as much territory from the retreating empire as possible, before the Albanians or other local peoples could set up their own states, the three independent Balkan states launched the two Balkan wars of 1912-13 to carve up remaining Ottoman territory. Approximately half of the Albanian ethnic territory fell to the Serbian monarchy, including Kosova, a large section of Serbian-conquered part of Macedonia (itself divided into three), the Presevo Valley in southeast Serbia and parts of Montenegro. The other half was rescued for a rump Albanian state by Austrian diplomacy.

This partition of the Albanian and Macedonian nations and the other borders drawn in blood were officially recognised by the imperialist powers at the London Conference of 1913. Serbia was a key ally of the British-French-Russian imperialist bloc in its impending clash with its German-Austrian rivals. This imperialist consecration of the division of the Albanian nation is at the heart of the conflict which has raged throughout the century.

The Kosovar Albanians furiously resisted the occupation. The Serbian monarchy was pitiless in its suppression -- according to the investigators of the Carnegie Commission, referring to the period immediately after the Balkan wars:

“Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred en masse, incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality of every kind -- such were the means which were employed by the Serbo-Montenegrin soldiery, with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians.”[6]

Another account was given by Lazer Mjeda, the Catholic Archbishop of Skopje, who noted that in Ferizaj only three Muslim Albanians over the age of 15 had been left alive, and that the population of Gjakova had been massacred despite surrendering. He described the scene in Prizren, which had also surrendered peacefully in the hope of being spared what was happening elsewhere in Kosova:

“The city seems like the Kingdom of Death. They knock on the doors of the Albanian houses, take away the men and shoot them immediately. In a few days the number of men killed reached 400. As for plunder, looting and rape, all that goes without saying; henceforth, the order of the day is: everything is permitted against Albanians, not only permitted, but willed and commanded.”[7]

Serbian Marxist Dimitrije Tucovic witnessed “barbaric crematoria in which hundreds of women and children are burnt alive” and claimed the clergy were urging the troops on to take revenge for the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when the then Serbian empire was defeated by the Ottoman empire in Kosova. “The historic task of Serbia,” he wrote “is a big lie.”[8] “For as long as the Serbs will not understand and realize that they are on foreign lands and territory, they will never be in peace or have good neighbor relations with Albanians,” Tucovic wrote. “Unlimited enmity of the Albanian people against Serbia is the foremost real result of the Albanian policies of the Serbian government. The second and more dangerous result is the strengthening of two big powers in Albania, which have the greatest interests in the Balkans.”[9]

Tucovic was leader of the left faction of the Serbian Social-democratic Party which, together with Lenin’s Russian Bolsheviks, wereamong the only social-democratic parties to remain internationalist during WWI and to deny war credits to their “own” bourgeoisie. What he writes above about 1912-13 may just as well have been written about the 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, living under the Austro-Hungarian yoke were other south Slavs, the Slovenes, Croats and now Bosnians. In their own freedom struggle, the idea had emerged of the unity of all South Slavs, in a “Yugoslav” state. In practice this meant that these Hapsburg-ruled Slavic nations would unite with the expanded Serbian monarchy. This “Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes” was proclaimed in 1918 under Anglo-French auspices, but from the start was a classic prison-house of nations, completely dominated by the Serbian bourgeoisie.

The worst excesses occurred in Kosova, where the largely Muslim Albanian majority were not Slavic at all, and lived in a land that Serb nationalists declared the cradle of their nation due to the presence of a large number of medieval Orthodox churches, and the famous battle against the Ottomans back in 1389.

Modern Serb nationalists claim that “Kosova has always been Serbia,” but according to one reading of Turkish statistics of 1911, of the 912,902 residents of the Vilayet of Kosova, 743,040 (80.5 percent) were Albanians and 106,209 (11.5 percent) were Serbs.[10] According to a more generous reading, Ottoman statistics put Orthodox Serbs at 21 percent of the population, still an absolute minority, and Austrian statistics in 1903 put it as high as 25 percent, the maximum claimed by any source.[11] The discrepancy in claimed Ottoman figures is almost certainly due to the fact that the Ottomans did not do censuses of ethnic groups, but only of religious affiliation – ‘Orthodox’ was assumed to be ‘Serb’ by the more generous researchers, but this would be an incorrect reading. But even according to the most generous reading, Albanians were the absolute majority.

Between the two World Wars, Albanians were ruthlessly uprooted: in one example, the entire Albanian population of upper Drenica (6064 people) were dispossessed of their land in 1938. They were pressured into leaving for Albania or Turkey -- estimates are of some 70,000 Albanians leaving during this period. However, that was not considered adequate, so in 1938, Yugoslavia made a deal with Turkey to expel another 40,000 Albanians, as Turkey wanted to use the Muslim Albanians to colonise eastern Anatolia as an outpost against its own oppressed Kurds and Armenians. A leading member of the Serbian Academy, Vaso Cubrilovic, put out a memorandum entitled “The expulsion of the Albanians” in which he claimed that if Hitler and Stalin could get away with all kinds of slaughter without anyone reacting, then what would the world care about the expulsion of a few hundred thousand Albanians?

Some 15,000 Serb families -- representing some 70,000 people, or about 10 per cent of the total Kosova population -- were moved in from Serbia proper as colonists and given large properties. Of 400,000 hectares of arable land in Kosova, these colonists were awarded 100,000 hectares. In 1928, Serbian official Djorje Krstic boasted that colonisation had boosted the percentage of Serbs in Kosova from 24 per cent, which he claimed for 1919, to 38 per cent.[12] Given that in 1999, the then Serb population of only 10 per cent of Kosova consisted of only 200,000 people, this gives an idea of how significant this colonisation was.

Italy invades

Following these 25 years of this prison-hell, when Mussolini invaded, the Albanians initially welcomed the Italian fascist troops, like Ukrainians and many others initially welcomed Nazi troops, or like future Indonesian national hero Sukarno collaborated with the Japanese occupiers. Of course, there were also Serb collaborators, as there were among all Yugoslav nations.[13]

The Italian occupiers allowed Kosova to be reunited with Albania as their puppet state. It is estimated that some 40,000 Serbs were expelled by the Albanian collaborationist regime. Though these were overwhelmingly the Serb colonists that were driven out, as the war progressed, Albanian fascists got less discriminating and acted with ruthless brutality towards the Serb population.

However, a Kosovar Albanian Partisan movement also appeared, fighting for the right to national self-determination, including unity with Communist Albania. This was inspired by the program of Josip Broz Tito’s Communist Partisans, who opposed the unitary Serb-dominated Yugoslavia of the inter-war years, and advocated instead an equal federation of Yugoslavia’s nations, based on proletarian internationalist ideals. Yugoslav and Albanian Communist leaders Tito and Enver Hoxha had aimed for Albania to become part of this, and for a new socialist federation of all Balkan nations, beyond a mere Yugoslav federation. As such, there could be no Kosovar republic, because it would eventually be part of the Albanian republic in the new federation, alongside the six Yugoslav republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro), and perhaps Bulgaria as well.

However, this never came to pass. In the first major violation of the new impending federal order, Tito had gathered Serb Partisans together with large numbers of former royalist, Serbian-chauvinist Cetniks (who came over following two amnesties declared by Tito in late 1944) and crushed the Kosovar Partisans.

According to Miranda Vickers:

“Perhaps the worst atrocity occurred in Tivar in Montenegro, where 1,670 Albanians were herded into a tunnel which was then sealed off so that all were asphyxiated.”[14]

As relations between Yugoslavia and Albania later deteriorated, Kosova was stuck in the highly unsatisfactory situation of autonomy inside Serbia.

Kosova’s “autonomy” status signified the Albanians as a “national minority” rather than a “nation” as their nation-state was Albania. However, Albanians were the vast majority of the population of Kosova in 1945, and in sheer numbers, they were bigger than most of the “nations” of Yugoslavia, and growing. This lack of republican status, combined with Kosova’s drastically poorer position than all Yugoslav republics, made the Albanians an unambiguously oppressed nation in the new Yugoslavia.

In the first twenty years, under hard-line Serb leader Rankovic, this ``autonomy” meant little more than living under permanent terror.Even the expulsions continued: in 1953, the pact with Turkey was reactivated, and some 100,000 Albanians were forced out in the program in the 1950s.

Kosovar national movement blossoms

With the fall of the Rankovic regime in 1966, the Kosovar Albanian national movement began to blossom, partly under the influence of the 1960s rebellion. Responding to this, Tito visited Kosova in 1967, and declared a complete reversal of policy. According to Tito:

“One cannot talk about equal rights when Serbs are given preference in factories … and Albanians are rejected even though they have the same and better qualifications.”[15]

A new, more internationalist, policy was introduced, which for the first time brought Kosovar Albanians close to the same level of equality enjoyed by the six other nations under the Titoist ``Brotherhood and Unity'' policy of the socialist federation of equal nations. Until then, Albanians had been left out of this policy largely as a concession to Serbian nationalists, who had always regarded Titoism and federation as “the destruction of the Serb nation,” because that nation did not have the absolute power it had had in capitalist Yugoslavia. By denying equality at least to the “Serb holy land” of Kosova, and giving them many positions in the repressive apparatus there, Tito had hoped to pacify these reactionary forces.

According to Clark:

“The provincial government now gained more autonomy, introduced secondary schooling in Albanian, accepted Albanian and Turkish alongside Serbo-Croatian as official languages, and began to administer the ‘ethnic keys’ that were a feature of Yugoslavia at that time. For the first time, the majority of members of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in Kosovo were Albanians.”[16]

Prisoners were released, the secret police purged, and the media allowed a field day to expose the crimes of the Rankovic era. In 1970, the University of Pristina, with courses in both Albanian and Serbo-Croatian, was opened, as was the Rilindja publishing house, for the first time bringing out many books on Albanian history and culture. Above all, Kosovar Albanians could now fly the flag of neighbouring Albania as their own flag, reflecting their actual national consciousness, and the degree to which ‘high Titoism’ was moving towards internationalism on this issue.

The new 1974 constitution upgraded Kosova’s status to what is known famously as ``high level autonomy'', under which, while still officially an autonomous province of Serbia, it was also declared a ``constituent element'' of the Yugoslav federation itself. Kosova had direct representation in the Yugoslav federal presidency as an equal to other republics, not via the Serbian republic. Albanians from Kosova had their turns as president and vice-president, like representatives from other republics, positions annually rotated among the eight equal constituent units of the federation. Kosova even had the same right to veto on the collective presidency as did republics. It had its own supreme court, its own central bank, its own territorial defence force, all features of a republic.

Despite these highly positive changes, Albanians still continually called for full formal republic status, as recognition of full equality. Leading Albanian Communist Mehmet Hoxha had asked in 1968, “Why do 370,000 Montenegrins have their own republic, but 1.2 million Albanians do not even have total autonomy.”[17] However, now that they did have “total autonomy-plus” after 1974, this near-republic status, while far from perfect, was the “legal” situation, and therefore the claim that Kosova was a mere “province” of Serbia, and thus that is all it can aspire to now, is false. Indeed it is important to understand that even the element of still being formally a “highly autonomous” province of Serbia was entirely connected to and conditional upon it also being a direct part of the Yugoslav federation, so when that federation later collapsed, so did this entire constitutional set-up that included “autonomy”. Mere autonomy within Serbia can only be a downgraded status compared to being a constituent unit of a greater federation, which no longer exists.

The fact that Albanians nevertheless remained dissatisfied was accentuated by Kosova’s dramatic economic situation, where unemployment hovered around 50 per cent, two and a half times the Yugoslav average. Kosova’s proportion of Yugoslav GDP was only one quarter its share of the population, and its GDP per capita was one quarter that of Serbia, again revealing its absolutely oppressed state.[18]Albanians likewise were grossly under-represented in unelected state bodies: with 8 per cent of the Yugoslav population, they accounted for only 1 per cent of the officers of the Yugoslav People’s Army, while 67 per cent of officers were Serb or Montenegrin (compared to their 39 per cent of the population).[19]

From `Brotherhood and Unity' to Serbian national chauvinism

Tito died in 1980, and with him, one of the key figures dedicated to preserving the delicate ethnic balance that held the federation together. In 1981, demonstrations at PristinaUniversity were brutally crushed by the Yugoslav military, with considerable killing. Thousands were arrested. This was followed by years of repression. Albanians, while only 8 per cent of Yugoslavia’s population, made up 75 per cent of political prisoners in the 1980s.[20] Between 1981 and 1988, 1000 Albanian teachers were sacked for allegedly not being committed to the fight against Albanian “nationalism.”[21]

This crackdown demonstrated to the Kosovars how frail their “high level” autonomy really was. Even though this remained their official status, this new wave of heavy repression effectively put to an end the 1968-81 ``honeymoon period'' of Albanians in Yugoslavia. This intensified their push for republic status, and, amongst a minority, for full independence or unity with Albania. An array of far-left underground groups sprung up in the 1980s, supported by Enver Hoxha’s Stalino-Maoist regime in Albania. It is from these groups that the core of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) arose in the 1990s.[22]

On the other extreme, the Serbian nationalist intelligentsia in the SerbianAcademy of Arts and Sciences in 1986 released the famous “Memorandum,” attacking the entire post-war Titoist order. It claimed the “Communist-Croat alliance” represented by Tito had set out to destroy the Serb nation by imposing an “alien” (federal) Yugoslavia upon them, and that the division into federal republics divided up the Serb nation. The Memorandum demanded that the Serbian nation must now re-establish its full “national and cultural integrity ... irrespective of the republic or province in which it finds itself.” In particular, Kosova must be crushed, to prevent the ongoing “genocide” against the local Serbs. This represented the first naked expression of the new nationalist ideology of the rising Serbian bourgeoisie, which had grown up under decades of “market socialism,” breaking through the Titoist/Communist ``Brotherhood and Unity'' ideology that had encrusted it to date.

The wing of the Serbian bureaucracy around new leader Slobodan Milosevic in 1987 forged an alliance with this reactionary national chauvinism, and together spearheaded a countermobilisation of Kosovar Serbs with the exact opposite aim to the Albanians -- to abolish Kosova’s autonomy, or reduce it to a meaningless pre-1974 variety. They believed, correctly, that there was a contradiction between Kosova being autonomous within Serbia yet having many features of a republic. In 1986, Vojislav Seselj (today leader of the extreme Chetnik Serbian Radical Party) demanded this contradiction be fixed, through reduction of autonomy, because, as he saw it, the contradiction could be interpreted as Kosova, as a federal unit, having the same right to secession as the republics.

Kosovar Serbs were mobilised on the pretext that it was their rights under attack from an “Albanian” administration in Kosova, which would seem odd considering the massive police repression of everything Albanian from 1981 onwards. The Kosovar Serbs had a very high constitutional position for the small minority they were. According to Kullashi Muhaludin from PristinaUniversity, “Throughout the institutions, from the lowest communal level to the highest instances of state and party, the leading functions were always shared between the two nationalities. If a school director, for example, was of one nationality, his deputy would have to be from the other. Furthermore, there existed a system of rotation which, each time a mandate changed, assured that the replacement would be from the other nationality … Indeed, the rotation principle favoured the Serbs, who were always in the minority in the province.”[23]

The reason a considerable percentage of the Kosovar Serb population was able to be mobilised was that it did indeed have “grievances” -- like those of white South Africans after the end of apartheid. High level autonomy, and particularly the PristinaUniversity, had resulted in a growing percentage of jobs in government and administration being taken by Albanians. While still not equal to the Albanians’ percentage of the population, nevertheless, this was a big change given that these jobs had previously been the preserve of Serbs. This in the context of Kosova having such high unemployment was a perfect environment for nationalists. The economic flight of Serbs to greener pastures in northern Serbia and Vojvodina was interpreted as flight from an alleged campaign of violence by the Albanians.

Like in the US Deep South, the centrepiece of this propaganda was an alleged campaign by “backward, Muslim” Albanians to rape Serb women. Official statistics, however, showed that rape was at a lower level in Albania than in more advanced Serbia and Slovenia, and the overwhelming majority of victims were Albanian women. Statistics also showed only one murder of a Serb by an Albanian in the period 1982 to 1987, over a land dispute, following which the culprit was executed. More significant was the change of law by Serbian authorities which made the ethnic origins of the accused in rape cases a legally relevant factor.[24]

This campaign was supplemented by the racist conspiracy theory that the larger families which poorer Albanians had was a deliberate strategy to outbreed Serbs. The Albanian proportion of the population in Kosova continued to increase, from 70-75 per cent, to over 80 per cent in 1980 and some 90 per cent by 1999. This occurred for the same reasons as Lebanese Muslims, Irish Catholics and Palestinians continued to increase in population all century, much to the chagrin of colonial powers and chauvinists among Lebanese Christians, Irish Protestants and Israelis, who wanted to maintain sectarian states: poor people have lots more babies, while better-off people have less.

In addition, the Kosovar Serbs, like the Bosnian Serbs and Croats, had a place to go to get out of the miserable poverty of Kosova, the ``Third World'' of Yugoslavia (and out of slightly less miserable Bosnia): to north Serbia, Vojvodina (or Croatia), whereas the Kosovar Albanians (and Bosnian Muslims) did not, further entrenching their majority in the province.

Milosevic counter-revolution

In 1988, Milosevic, who had purged the Serbian League of Communists of its internationalist wing and launched an IMF-backed neo-liberalisation of the economy, proposed constitutional changes abolishing Kosova’s high level autonomy. As the Kosova assembly opposed this, Milosevic forced the resignation of veteran Kosovar leader and Tito-protégé Adem Vllasi. The heroic Kosovar miners led the last major working class resistance to the Milosevic counterrevolution.

The irony of many Western leftists seeing the Milosevic regime as the continuation of “socialist” Yugoslavia opposed to “pro-Western secessionists” is exposed most clearly in these events. As Milosevic sought to destroy the Yugoslav constitution, with its fine balance between the various nations, mobilising under reactionary Chetnik and Serbian Orthodox slogans, the Kosovar miners led a movement to defend the Yugoslav constitution in late 1988 and early 1989. In their gigantic march from the ‘Trepca’ mines near Mitrovica in the north to Pristina in November 1988, the miners chanted “Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia,” bearing portraits of Tito and red flags. They were not calling for Kosovar independence, but warned that the violent crushing of the Kosovar people would lead to the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia.

Three hated officials, who had no popular mandate, were put into the Kosova assembly by Milosevic. In February, a general strike erupted throughout Kosova. A thousand miners went on hunger strike underground for eight days, but were tricked into coming up with the pretence that there demands would be met. The strongly Western-backed federal prime minister, Ante Markovic, sent federal troops into Kosova, not to support the constitutional demands of the Kosovar working class, but to suppress them on behalf of Milosevic, in outright violation of the constitution, effectively putting an end to Yugoslavia.

A state of emergency was declared, and 24 Albanians shot dead by the occupation forces. Some 2000 Albanian workers were hauled before the courts, including former leaders of the assembly. The assembly was surrounded by tanks and helicopters and under this somewhat direct threat, agreed to pass the constitutional changes and vote itself out of existence. The next day, Markovic congratulated Milosevic on this destruction of the federal order.[25]

Kosovar working-class resistance continued throughout 1989 and 1990. In January and February 1990 a further 32 Kosovar demonstrators were killed. In July, Serbia abolished what was left of Kosova’s autonomy as it adopted a new constitution, reducing Kosova (and Vojvodina) to just any other administrative district of Serbia. Locked out of the Kosova assembly, the majority of legally elected Albanian delegates voted on an act of self-determination for Kosova. Serbia formerly dissolved the assembly. On September 7, Kosovar delgates met and declared the Republic of Kosova as a “democratic state of the Albanian people and of members of other nations and national minorities who are its citizens: Serbs, Muslims, Montenegrins, Croats, Turks, Romanies and others living in Kosova.”[26] In 1991, Kosovars held a referendum, in which 99 per cent voted for independence.

As the constitutional changes were forced through against the will of the Kosova assembly, it was an open attack on the federal constitution. Milosevic stooges were put in charge of the fictional “assembly” that was maintained as window dressing -- the first major step in transforming federal Yugoslavia into a unitary Serb-dominated state. Despite abolition of the provinces’ autonomy, the new hand-picked “representatives” of Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro maintained federal representation, meaning four federal units had essentially become one. Milosevic now had four of the eight votes on the Federal Presidency, meaning an effective control of Yugoslavia. Hence beginning the IMF-demanded constitutional changes to limit the powers of the republics over federal decisions went in tandem with laying the groundwork for Greater Serbia and the destruction of the real Yugoslav federation. Not surprisingly, therefore, restoration of Kosovar autonomy was never one of the West’s demands over the next decade.

Following the scrapping of Kosovar autonomy and its complete occupation by the federal army, a state of apartheid existed in Kosova throughout the 1990s. Albanians were expelled from all jobs in public administration, all Albanian police were sacked and all municipal and communal councils were suspended, making Kosova essentially a colony, with a powerless population ruled by an administration made up entirely of people from the small Serbian minority. Only Cyrillic script was allowed in official dealings, thousands of teachers, who continued teaching in Albanian, were sacked and school syllabuses were Serbianised. Half a million school age children were thus effectively denied an education. The same happened with PrisitnaUniversity, and all names there were changed to Cyrillic script. Hundreds of Albanian doctors were driven out of hospitals. All Albanians in the public sector – which in the still largely state-controlled economy of the time meant nearly everyone in formal employment – were sacked. In the historic Trepca mines, Albanians, who had formed 70 per cent of the 23,000 strong workforce, all lost their jobs. Names of streets and other locations throughout Kosova were changed to names from Serbian nationalist mythology. For example, Pristina’s Marshall Tito Boulevarde was changed to Vidovdan Boulevarde, after a Serbian Orthodox festival. Thousands of Albanians were hauled before the courts on the most trivial of charges; a state of complete lawlessness characterised the relations between the Serbian occupation authorities and the mass of the population.

This led on to a deeper anti-Muslim ideological crusade by the Serb nationalist movement. The cream of Serbia’s writers and intellectuals, such as future prime minister Dobrica Cosic and Vuk Draskovic, now head of the moderate Chetnik Serbian Renewal Party (SPO), pushed obscurantist and medievalist Serbian-chauvinist and Muslim-hating views in their writings. It was alleged that Tito merely “created” the Muslims as yet another part of his devious project of “destroying the Serb nation” by setting up a federation. The Muslims and Albanians were called “Turks” and presented as continuers of the Ottoman Empire. The repression in Kosova and the later genocide of Bosnia’s Muslims were presented to the world as Serbia crusading in the frontline of Western Christian civilisation against the “Islamic threat”.

Rise of the KLA

From 1992 onwards, the independence struggle was led by Ibrahim Rugova and his Kosova Democratic League, which consisted essentially of the former Kosovar branches of the Yugoslav League of Communists. This entirely peaceful “Gandhian” struggle contrasted strongly with the bloodshed engulfing the region. The centrepiece of the struggle was a system of parallel schools, hospitals and other social and political institutions, allowing Albanians to continue take part in normal life in some form after being driven out of the system of the occupied province.

However, while gaining mass participation by Albanians, this imposed the onerous burden of double taxation – by the occupation regime, which gave them nothing in return, and by the parallel authorities. From around 1996, Rugova’s strategy was more and more challenged by more radical elements, particularly those led by Adem Demaci, known as Kosova’s Nelson Mandela for spending a total of 28 years in Serbian prisons. Demaci and others, including the growing student movement, demanded these institutions be supplemented by a more active mass protest action approach.

This entire struggle of the 1990s is a hugely inspirational story in itself, which this essay cannot detail.[27] The ultimate failure of this decade of peaceful resistance to achieve any gains, however, alongside the complete ignoring of this struggle by Western powers, led to the rise of an armed guerrilla movement, the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), at the end of the 1990s. This will be dealt with in the next part, but the important point here is to understand that this was not simply some “CIA-backed creation of the Albanian mafia and drug-runners” as the right-wing (and some left-wing) anti-Albanian demonisation asserts, but on the contrary was an organic outgrowth of this already existing mass independence struggle. It is hardly the first time in history that a non-violent liberation struggle turns to armed resistance when all else fails and repression prevails.

The other point to understand is that the demand for complete independence was not an innovation of the KLA. Some like to imagine that the ``peaceful'' movement led by Rugova had a similarly “moderate” aim, in the view of those who consider independence sinful. As explained, Kosova’s declaration of independence by the Rugova-led movement took place in 1990 and there has never been any movement for autonomy or anything less than complete independence from any section of Kosovar Albanian society at any point.

In 1996, the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, carrying out research on the views of various minorities within Serbia regarding solutions to their oppression, was struck by the fact that the choice of “independence” as the only solution was supported by 100 percent of Albanians.[28] This is the simple reality that today’s critics of the right of the Kosovar people to self-determination have to deal with.


This second article of the series has aimed to demonstrate two things.

Firstly, the Kosovar Albanians were an oppressed people in the former Yugoslavia, and much more so under the Serbian iron heel when Yugoslavia collapsed. As an oppressed people living in a well-defined region, they have the right to national self-determination, including complete independence. Moreover, considering the historic imperialist partitioning of the Albanian nation in 1913, and the fact that Albanians – the poorest nation in Europe – still live in a compact, contiguous region covering five countries, the Albanian people as a whole have the right to national self-determination, meaning, if they wish, the Kosovars and other Albanian minorities should be allowed to unite with Albania.

This is their right – though whether a united Albanian nation or an independent Kosova is the better outcome will be discussed below.

Secondly, the Kosovar Albanians have resisted Serbian occupation for a century and have never recognised its legitimacy. This has to be an important aspect of the alleged ``sovereignty” of established international borders. They have never claimed anything less than complete independence in all their struggles.

Therefore those claiming the current declaration of independence is merely an imperialist maneuver are wrong – the independence demand is and always has been overwhelming in Kosova, long before the very belated imperialist acceptance of it. The role of imperialism in the current crisis is very major, but cannot be understood in isolation from this very fundamental underpinning.

The next article in the series will deal with the long-term imperialist interest in and attitude to the Kosova question, including the war of 1999, while the one after that will deal with how the current situation has come about and the broader imperialist geo-=strategic interests involved. A particular aspect will be the position of the Kosovar Serb minority in the newly independent state, and the question of independent multi-ethnic Kosova versus that of partition and/or united Albanian nation.

[Michael Karadjis is the author of Bosnia, Kosova and the West: The Yugoslav Tragedy: A Marxist View. Published by Resistance Books, 2000, 256 pp, $24.95. He is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective on Australia.]

[1]Lenin, V.I., ‘The Discussion of Self-determination Summed Up’, Collected Works, Vol 22, p. 325

[2]Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Collected Works, Vol 20, p. 423

[3] Ibid, p. 423.

[4]Ibid, p. 434-35

[5]Trotsky, L, “Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads,” July 22, 1939, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39).

[6]Quoted from Malcolm, N, Kosovo: A short history, New York University Press, 1998, p. 254, from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, Washington 1914, pp. 148-186.

[7]Ibid, p. 254

[8]Howard Clark, Civil Resistance in Kosovo, Pluto Press, 2000, p. 9.

[9]Holberg, A., Book review: Dimitrije Tucovic: Serbia and Albania, Published by Arbeitsgruppe Marxismus, Vienna, 1999,www.labournet.net/balkans/0003/serbrvw.html

[10]Turkish statistics of 1911, quoted by The Institute of History, Pristina, “Expulsions of Albanians and Colonisation of Kosova,” Pristina, www.kosova.com/expuls/. Indeed, the Supreme Command of the Serbian III Army did a census with similar results on March 3, 1913, ibid.

[11]Malcolm, N, Kosovo: A short history, New York University Press, 1998.

[12] Ibid, p. 282.

[13] The main collaborationist forces were the Nazi-installed genocidal Croatian Ustase, who killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and others, the Serbian puppet regime of Nedic, ruling over Belgrade as the first city to be declared ‘Judenfrei’ (free of Jews), and the Italian-backed and later German backed Serbian Cetniks who killed most of the 100,000 Bosnian Muslims who died in the war.

[14]Vickers, M, Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo, ColumbiaUniversity Press, New York, 1998, p. 143.

[15]Clark, p. 12.


[17]Clark, p. 38.

[18]Vovou, S (ed), Bosnia-Herzegovina - The Battle for a Multi-Ethnic Society, Deltio Thiellis, Athens, 1996, table on p. 19.

[19] Vreme, July 15, 1991.

[20]. Amnesty International, Yugoslavia’s Ethnic Albanians, New York, 1992

[21] Interview with Kullashi Muhaludin, “Where the Crisis Began,” International Viewpoint, April 27, 1992, p20.

[22]. These groups included the Movement for the National Liberation of Kosova, the Group of Marxist-Leninists of Kosova, the Red Front, the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) of Yugoslavia, and the Movement for an AlbanianRepublic in Yugoslavia.

[23] Interview with Kullashi Muhaludin, op cit.

[24] Magas, B, The Destruction of Yugoslavia, Verso, New York/London, 1993, p. 62.

[25] Magas, op cit, p161.

[26] Poulton, H, The Balkans, op cit, p70.

[27] An excellent overall account of this struggle is Civil Resistance in Kosovo, by Howard Clark, then coordinator of War Resisters’ International, Pluto Press, 2000.

[28]Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, Report on Human Rights in Serbia for 1996, Belgrade, 1997. In the opinion of the Serbian Helsinki Committee, such unanimity was impossible, hence declaring the result “invalid.” It also regarded to be invalid the fact that 100 percent of Albanians gave a figure of ‘one’ out of ‘one to ten’ as to how unequal they feel. The Helsinki Committee decided that such unanimity was impossible “unless we want to conclude that … all Albanians in Serbia feel totally unequal and oppressed and that all of them consider that the only solution to their problem is an independent Kosovo.” In reality, the fact that the Helsinki Committee even doubted that this was exactly the case only indicates how far from the Kosovar reality even well-meaning Belgraders were at the time.