Self-determination for the people of Kosovo! Toward the Balkan Socialist Federation!

The following resolution was passed unanimously, at the end of April, at the Banja Luka congress of the Yugoslav section of the IMT by Marxist delegates that had gathered from across the former Yugoslavia, from Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia.

The political position regarding Kosovo – within Serbia, and beyond in the former Yugoslavia – is often based on the mythology and prejudices of Serbian nationalism. Social conflicts between Serbs and Albanians, and political disputes over the international legal status of this territory are seen as a continuation of centuries of religious-ethnic conflict.

Congress Berlin Image Anton Von WernerThe decisions of the Berlin Congress in 1878 displaced much of the population / Image: Anton Von Werner

At the same time, Albanians are seen as intruders in the ‘holy Serbian land’. Unlike metaphysical and ahistorical approaches, Marxists look for the roots of today's ‘Kosovo question’ in the modern age, i.e., in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the Balkan nations and nation-states were formed. The ethnic composition and dividing lines between Serbs and Albanians were conditioned by the expansion of national consciousness and the weakening of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.

The creation of Balkan nations

A significant displacement of the population took place after the decisions of the Berlin Congress (1878) and the southeast expansion of the borders of the Serbian state. The ethnic homogenisation of the new nation-state went hand in hand with the forced migration of Albanians and other Muslims from towns and villages in the Niš, Pirot, Toplica, and Vranje districts to Kosovo and Macedonia. On the other hand, during the nineteenth century, the Serb population from Kosovo migrated northwest due to the crisis of the Ottoman order, economic underdevelopment, and the vision of a better life in territories where Serbs enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy.

In parallel with the territorial expansion of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria, the Albanian population in the province of Kosovo, still living under the Ottoman Empire, was developing its own national consciousness. Wars between Serbia and the Ottoman troops (which included Albanians), the spread of Albanian nationalism and the desire to create an independent Albanian state – as well as the resentment of Muslim refugees over the expulsions from Serbia – created anti-Serbian sentiment among the Albanian population. 

As an echo of the Greco-Turkish War, in 1901, there was a wave of violence in Kosovo by armed Albanians against the Kosovo Serbs. On the other hand, Albanian peasants in Kosovo border regions were often exposed to incursions by armed companies from Serbia that committed crimes against the Muslim population.

Political and economic modernisation, and the creation of sovereign nation-states modelled on European models, were thus slowly but surely erasing earlier modes of hierarchy and coexistence between different peoples and religions in the Balkans inherited from the Ottoman era. These processes of faster transformation towards modern capitalist societies, as well as the idea of ethnically homogeneous states as ‘natural’ political communities, gave birth to what we see today as the proverbial rivalry and ‘struggle for living space’ between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo.

The Balkan Wars

Kosovo came under the control of Serbia and Montenegro after the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). The Serbian state had taken over the territory where, after the already described ethnic conflicts and the relocation of the population, there was a majority Albanian population, sceptical about the motives of the new government. According to the Ottoman census of 1912, around 21 percent of the population of the Peja, Prizren, and Pristina districts was made up of Serbs. The 1921 census conducted by the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes shows similar numbers. That year, people whose mother tongue was Serbo-Croatian made up 26 percent of the population in the Kosovo, Metohija, Zvečan and Prizren districts. 

Old Kosovo map Image Public DomainKosovo came under the control of Serbia and Montenegro after the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) / Image: Public Domain

The behaviour of the Serbian army towards the majority population in the newly annexed areas did nothing to reduce ethnic tensions. On the contrary, in advancing through Albanian villages, the Serbian army was conducting an ethnic cleansing campaign; the goal of which was to homogenise the national composition of the territory before the upcoming conferences of great powers (conferences which would determine new borders in the areas from which the Turkish army withdrew).

In September 1913, an Albanian uprising broke out against the new authorities, which the Serbian army suppressed ruthlessly. Marxists present on the ground at the time stand out for describing and condemning the crimes of the Serbian army against Albanian civilians without any calculations. In the article "Blood Revenge of the Soldiers" and later in the book "Serbia and Albania," Serbian socialist Dimitrije Tucović did not hesitate to tell the truth amid nationalist euphoria that spread in the Serbian parliament after the new expansion of state borders: 

"When the revolt broke out, the government, through the representative of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that Arbanasi would be 'punished appropriately,' the bourgeois press demanded ruthless extermination, and the army carried it out. The villages of Arbanasi, from which the men escaped in time, were burned to ashes. At the same time, these were barbaric crematoria in which hundreds of women and children were burned alive. Moreover, while the insurgents disarmed and released the captured Serbian officers and soldiers, the Serbian soldiers did not spare their children, women, and the sick."

Without becoming bogged down in the games amid great powers over the Balkans, and speculations about who could use the news of the brutality of the Serbian army for their interests, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky noted what he saw as a war reporter for the Ukrainian newspaper "Kijevskaja misl." Taking an independent class position, Trotsky writes about the mass killings of Albanians during and immediately after the Balkan wars, committed by the regular Serbian army but mainly by the paramilitary groups. Trotsky notes that these paramilitary formations were composed of a small number of intellectuals who were passionate about nationalist ideas, and a large number of criminal elements who were motivated by looting.

While writing their observations on the ground, Dimitrije Tucović and Leon Trotsky were aware that the Balkan wars were rapidly transforming from struggles for national liberation from the Turkish authorities into mini-imperialist wars. Although still young, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria – Balkan states that pushed the Turkish army between 1912 and 1913 – were already dominated by reactionary monarchies and consolidated state bureaucracies with no interest in improving the position of the general population.

Dimitrije Tucović Image Public DomainDimitrije Tucović remained consistent with proletarian internationalism even in the midst of the Balkan wars and the First World War / Image: Public Domain

The way in which the Serbian bourgeoisie organised its power in Kosovo shows this fact well. Belgrade did not bring new political freedoms, economic progress, and security to the people of Kosovo. After taking power on the ground, corruption reigned. War profiteers from paramilitary formations entered the local state administration bodies and systematically discriminated against the non-Serb population. Albanians did not have the possibility of schooling in their language. The Serbian state conducted campaigns to convert Albanian Catholics to the Orthodox religion. The land confiscated from agas and beys (the Ottoman Muslim landlords) was not redistributed to poor Albanian peasants but instead handed over to Christian colonists from Serbia and Montenegro.

Between 1918 and 1924, an armed uprising of Albanians in the form of a guerrilla movement (Kachak rebellion) spread through Kosovo again. One of the prominent leaders of the Kachaks was Bajram Curri, a long-time fighter for the liberation of the Albanian people. Enthusiastic about the Russian Revolution and Lenin's approach to the national question, Curri began to correspond with him. In 1918, under the leadership of Bajram Curri, the Committee for National Defence of Kosovo was established, and Curri later even came into contact with the Third International.

Bajram Tsuri Image Public DomainBajram Curri, a fighter for the independence of Albania and one of the prominent leaders of the Kachak / Image: Public Domain

Against this rebellion, the Serbian state used the cruellest methods with the approval and support of the bourgeois press. Houses of Kachaks were burned, their property confiscated, and Kachak families interned in camps. Having all this in mind, one should not be surprised that most Albanians did not see the Serbian state as a liberator after the First World War but as an occupier. Albanians were formally involved in the political life of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes through the conservative Džemijet party. However, this organisation represented a landowner, Muslim elite that opportunistically supported the Serbian ruling parties in parliament in exchange for minor concessions. The only political organisation within Serbia and Yugoslavia that clearly and unreservedly expressed solidarity with the struggle of the Albanian people for their national, cultural, and economic rights in the interwar years was the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY).

The chaotic rule of the Ottoman Empire in its decaying phase was thus replaced by the military administration of the Serbian state in Kosovo at the beginning of the twentieth century. Serbia's attitude towards the Albanian people in the interwar period can only be described as colonial and racist. Albanians were declared incapable of independent cultural life and forming their own nation-state. The post-Ottoman territory inhabited by the majority Albanian population was thus seized in the name of "historic rights" and the chauvinist mythology of restoring the territories of the mediaeval Serbian empire. This reactionary policy of the Serbian bourgeoisie resulted in decades of mistrust and often open hostility between Albanians and Serbs.

Armed Partisan Brotherhood

The precedent, which demonstrated that national oppression and mistrust between the people of Kosovo does not necessarily have to be renewed from generation to generation, happened at a time when it was least expected. We are referring to the armed unity of Serbs and Albanians within the Partisan movement during the Second World War.

Albanian partisans painting Image Adam JonesAlbanian partisans in the fight against occupiers. Painting from the National Museum in Tirana / Image: Adam Jones

The prospects for joint political action across ethnic lines in Kosovo were very slim during the first months of the occupation. Italian fascists skillfully used pre-war divisions to consolidate their power. They introduced education in the Albanian language, allowed public showcase of Albanian national symbols and presented themselves as liberators of the Albanian masses from Serbian domination. Among the politically backward layers of Albanians, the occupier was recruiting various fascist militias and quisling formations that would start terror against the Serbian population, especially the poorer settler families who were being evicted or liquidated. On the other hand, gangs of Chetniks were making intrusions from Kosovo to Sandžak to take revenge on Albanian and Muslim civilians in border villages.

This scenario is not unique to Kosovo. A similar situation existed in Dalmatia, parts of Bosnia and many other areas of the Balkans during World War II. What took place in these underdeveloped, multiethnic regions was the systematic terror of the fascist occupiers against the Serbian population and other peoples, as well as the bloody feasts of opposing domestic nationalist militias. These reactionary gangs grew under the auspices of the occupying foreign armies, massacring local populations who were giving support to the Partisan resistance movement. Their crimes were motivated by revenge, creation of ethnically clean territories, or looting. 

The main difference between Kosovo and the other ethnically mixed areas of Yugoslavia was the objective weakness of the Partisan movement in the former case. The Partisans were the only political force that consistently fought against the occupiers and organised the population across ethnic divisions. The growth of their influence in a certain territory was therefore the only guarantee that there would be no bloodshed on a national basis. In Kosovo, however, the CPY had only 270 members when the war broke out. Only twenty of them were of Albanian ethnicity. The lack of an industrial working class, and distrust of Albanians towards a political organisation that was perceived as "Slavic," were the main obstacles for communists in the region.

The situation on the ground was gradually changing as the war progressed. In September 1942, the first Albanian Partisan unit was formed. A great impetus for strengthening the reputation of the Partisan movement among the Albanian population of Kosovo was the growing influence of Marxist groups and guerrilla actions in Albania. The clear determination of the Albanian and Serbian delegates of the People's Liberation Committee for Kosovo and Dukagjin to support the right of the people of Kosovo to self-determination (the Bujan Conference) – as well as the selfless assistance provided by Yugoslav Partisans to Albanian comrades during the war years – helped in weakening the prejudices that Albanians in Kosovo had towards Serbian communists. 

Prominent Kosovo communists such as Miladin Popović, Dušan Mugoša, Ramiz Sadiku and Borko "Boro" Vukmirović played key roles in linking revolutionary movements in Yugoslavia and Albania. They advocated an internationalist line in Kosovo by campaigning for the inclusion of Albanians in the agrarian reform, free usage of Albanian language in the local administration and the school system, as well as the right of Albanians to nurture their cultural heritage.

It is not the case however that all the members of the CPY had an internationalist attitude towards the Albanian national question. Activists such as Sadiku, Mugoša and Popović were experienced party cadres who built class unity during years of illegal political work against the Serbian monarchist regime and fascism, in close contact with fellow combatants in Albania. However, many new Serbian recruits into partisan detachments from Kosovo, Montenegro and southern Serbia did not have the same political level, while their views were inevitably influenced by the terror of the Albanian quislings that their families experienced during the war. They were more inclined to view Albanians as collaborators with the occupiers.

Boro and Ramiz Image Public DomainBoro and Ramiz, a symbol of brotherhood and unity between Serbs and Albanians / Image: Public Domain

Also, we should not lose sight of the inherited chauvinistic ideas that continued to circulate within state institutions after the war. Among them was the idea of expulsion of the Albanian population from Kosovo, which was still advocated by the functionary Vasa Čubrilović. There were thus opposing views on how to resolve the national question in Kosovo in circulation inside the People's Liberation Movement and the post-war authorities. Due to the lack of a democratic culture of open discussion about the political line and perspectives in the ranks of the Stalinised CPY, the new authorities acted empirically and reactively. Instead of anticipating and directing the process ahead, the Yugoslav communists allowed the spontaneous development of events on the ground to determine which approach would prevail.

Although communist ideas were finding their way to the wider layers of Albanians, most were still reserved or influenced by nationalist political currents and former quislings – especially in the hilly Drenica region of central Kosovo, where patriarchal family relations dictated social and political life. The strategy of the Yugoslav communists in the last months of the war in Kosovo was to mobilise Albanian youth en masse into Partisan army units and integrate them into the revolutionary movement through the fight against fascism in other parts of the country. In the second step, rapid industrialisation in Kosovo itself was supposed to create a new working class and break the patriarchal relations of dependence. The question was also what to do with those parts of the Albanian population that were already engaged in reactionary political and guerilla movements. As in the case of quisling detachments in other parts of the country, the communists planned an amnesty for ordinary members who had not committed war crimes, while bringing the leaders of these formations to justice.

Realising that their days were numbered, the leaders of the nationalist formations started an armed uprising against the new authorities in late 1944. The exact balance of power and the global division of spheres of influence between the Soviet Union and its Western allies was not yet known in those months. The hope of Albanian nationalist organisations was to attract the attention of the Western allied forces and eventually join the armed intervention of capitalist states against communism in the Balkans. 

The uprising, which had its stronghold in the Drenica region, inevitably gave primacy to the more reactionary wings within the Serbian branch of the Communist Party. During the first half of 1945, a military administration was established in Kosovo and 30,000 troops of the Yugoslav People's Army were engaged with the task of quelling the uprising in the villages of Drenica. After the insurgency was brought under control through brutal intervention, Kosovo's formal status within the new Yugoslavia was resolved in July that year without much political discussion. The People's Liberation Committee of Kosovo and Metohija, with 142 members (of which only 33 were Albanians), voted on the decision to include Kosovo in the Republic of Serbia as an autonomous region.

There is no doubt that months of military rule and the exclusion of the Albanian masses from the process of deciding on Kosovo's future gave credence to nationalist Albanian politicians’ claims that communist rule was not fundamentally different from the pre-war regime, and that Albanians could gain full national rights only in an independent bourgeois state or by unification with Albania. This, however, was far from the truth. The new workers' state, which emerged from the revolution and the activation of the masses, had little in common with monarchist Yugoslavia, despite all the shortcomings and mistakes of the Stalinist leadership of the CPY. 

The socialist revolutions in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania, as well as the strengthening of communist forces in Greece, opened the prospect of a radical reshaping of the region and a solution to the Albanian national question. The leaders of the Partisan movements in Yugoslavia and Albania considered creating a broader socialist federation that would transcend bourgeois national frameworks. A dispatch sent by the Supreme Headquarters of the Yugoslav People's Liberation Army to the Albanian People's Liberation Army at the end of January 1944 states, among other things:

"In our opinion, the comrades in Albania should work on connecting their struggle with ours as closely as possible. The decisions of AVNOJ and the federal organisation of Yugoslavia should be popularised, as well as the possibility of other Balkan nations joining this federation, creating a strong and great Balkan state of equal peoples that would be a strong factor in Europe and provide great opportunities for all-round development of each nation."

Concrete policies implemented in both countries immediately after the liberation show that these were not empty phrases. Belgrade and Tirana signed a series of contracts and agreements that paved the way for the closest military, economic and cultural cooperation. These included: the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance (guaranteeing military cooperation, 9 July 1946), the agreement on harmonisation of economic plans, the customs union, and the equalisation of the currency between the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia and the People’s Republic of Albania (27 November 1946), and the Convention on Cultural Cooperation (9 June 1947). Yugoslavia sent military and economic advisers to Albania and enjoyed such a reputation that Serbo-Croatian was introduced as a compulsory subject in Albanian schools. 

It therefore becomes clear that Kosovo's formal status in the first years after liberation from fascism was a tactical issue in the eyes of the CPY's top leadership, one which they hoped would lose relevance once the revolution stabilised and a broader Balkan alliance made the Yugoslav-Albanian border redundant. According to Milentije Popović, addressing the People's Liberation Committee in Prizren in July 1945: "The question of what status Kosovo and Metohija will have today, at this stage of the people's movement, is an administrative issue, not a political one."

“Hey, Slavs”: Socialism in one state

The split between Moscow and Belgrade in 1948 and the turning of each Balkan state onto an individual and mutually opposed "national path to socialism" had fatal consequences for Albanians in Yugoslavia. The Stalinisation of the Balkan labour movement – which manifested in obedience to Moscow's harmful political manoeuvres and growing social contradictions in the Stalinist model of building "socialism in one state" – had consequences for all other aspects of emancipation, including overcoming national oppression. 

Protests Kosovo 1968 Image Puclic DomainProtests in Kosovo in 1968 / Image: Public Domain

In the case of Yugoslavia, turning to building a federation of southern Slavs also meant gradually diluting the ideas of workers' internationalism. The unity of the Yugoslav working class was gradually based more and more on the idea of ​​the common interest of the Slavs in the state, and less and less on the idea of ​​the common interest of the workers. Despite their number, which was greater than some of the constituent nations of the new state, Albanians received the status of ‘nationality’ (narodnost), i.e of a national minority.

Instead of serving as a bridge between the two entities in a wider Balkan alliance, in the eyes of Yugoslav communists, Kosovo was becoming a "blind alley" and a potential security risk. It was seen as a place where Moscow and Tirana could undermine Yugoslavia's sovereignty by influencing the Albanian minority. The backward forces that nurtured prejudices against the Albanians thus regained their primacy in the party, and the Albanians were accordingly pushed to the margins of political and social life in Yugoslavia. 

Kosovo was becoming a neglected area where the police and state security service had the upper hand, and Albanians were regarded as "suspicious citizens". It is estimated that until the dismissal of Aleksandar Ranković (the head of the secret police) in 1966, the state security service and the police operatively processed about 120,000 Kosovo citizens of Albanian nationality. Albanians were marginalised within socio-political organisations. In the mid-1950s, Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo made up 50 percent of party members, 68 percent of leading administrative positions in state institutions and as much as 87 percent of security personnel; all this despite making up just 27 percent of the total population.

In economic terms, Kosovo was neglected during the 1950s. It was only after 1957 that Kosovo started receiving funds for its underdeveloped regions from the federal budget. Per capita investment in Kosovo reached 43.5 percent of the Yugoslav average during this decade. In 1958, there were only 49 industrial companies in Kosovo, employing 16,000 workers. In comparison, 465 companies were operating in Slovenia that year. These were mainly capital-intensive plants in the extractive industries that did not employ many people, and whose prices depended on the final producers in the more developed parts of the country. 

Despite economic growth in absolute numbers, the gap between Kosovo and more developed parts of Yugoslavia widened over the years. In 1946, the average income in Kosovo was three times lower than in Slovenia, while the difference increased to 5 times by 1964 – a devastating figure for a country that called itself socialist. Stuck in underdevelopment and pressured by police torture, Albanians were leaving Yugoslavia en masse and emigrating to Turkey, which the Yugoslav state encouraged by signing a special agreement on the reception of migrants with Ankara.

However, the history of Albanians within the Yugoslav workers' state is not solely limited to repression and the position of the victim. Firstly, Albanians were actors capable of shaping political currents – either as part of the state and the party, or by applying pressure from the street in the form of independent bottom-up organisation. Secondly, despite the lack of democracy and deformations in development inherent in the concept of "socialism in one state", post-war Yugoslavia was a revolutionary creation very capable of generating progress and providing space for emancipation to marginalised sections of society. As we have already mentioned, there were different approaches to the Albanian national question among the Yugoslav communists, and by the beginning of the 1960s more progressive currents were gaining ground again. The conditions for changing the official policy towards Kosovo were created by the improvement of relations between Belgrade and Moscow, but also by the split of the Albanian party bureaucracy in Tirana away from its former allies in the Soviet Union. Apart from these geopolitical changes, the main influence was played by Albanian officials within the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ), although an additional factor were the street demonstrations held by Albanians in 1968, which drew public attention to the catastrophic living conditions in the province.

The 1960s and 1970s give us hints of a progressive policy towards national minorities that a workers' state can cultivate on the foundations of a planned economy. In 1968 Kosovo received the status of an autonomous province with its own constitution, while in 1974 its constitutional status and political representation within the federacy was lifted almost to the level of a republic. The local government was beginning to pay special attention to the usage of Albanian language in the school system, cultural and state institutions, while strict bilingualism was introduced in socio-political organisations and the public. This meant the doors were being opened for greater activation of Albanians within official structures. By the late 1970s, Albanians already made up two-thirds of the party's members, while the share of Albanians in the administration and companies was growing significantly. In economic terms, these two decades will also be remembered as years of rapid progress due to infrastructure projects, job creation and rising living standards.

In 1965, the Fund for the Accelerated Development of the Underdeveloped Republics and Kosovo was established. There are many misinterpretations of this federal redistribution mechanism. For economic liberals, it represents an irrational transfer of value into “unprofitable” investments. Serbian nationalists often point to this fund as the ultimate proof of alleged laziness and even ingratitude of Kosovo Albanians. The truth is, however, that this mechanism was compensation for abandoning the balanced development of the country through a central investment plan at the level of the entire federation. This fund was an attempt to make up for a market-motivated growth model in which the main poles of economic development were companies and regions that have already had acquired advantages. Nevertheless, this model of minimal "compensation" has brought great benefits to the development of the province compared to previous neglect, despite the bureaucratic waste and corruption that accompanied it.

Despite the accelerated economic growth of the 1960s and 1970s, social and economic problems persisted even during these years. Investments have failed to diversify the province's economic structure. Energy, mining and metal processing companies remain dependent on final producers in more developed regions of Yugoslavia which dictate prices on the “socialist market”. Unemployment remained the highest in the country. In a population of 1.5 million, only 178 thousand inhabitants had a social sector employment with all the benefits. These inequalities also had a national pattern. The development of the administration and its opening to the Albanians created a narrow layer of the Albanian population integrated into the Yugoslav state. It was concentrated in larger urban centres and became an example of the policy of "brotherhood and unity" and bilingualism. On the other hand, most Albanians remained in the countryside away from the benefits of socialised housing, social benefits and consumer power that have been closely linked to employment in state institutions and social sector enterprises.

Student Protests Kosovo Image Public DomainStudent protests in 1981 in Kosovo / Image: Public Domain

Despite the significant rise in influence of Albanian workers in the “self-managed” social sector, national inequalities persisted. Serbs and Montenegrins, who made up 15 percent of the population in 1981, made up 30 percent of its employees. Most of the leading positions in the companies remain in the hands of Serbs and Montenegrins. A large number of Albanians turned to small businesses, migrated to the West or used the newly created opportunities to achieve higher education in Albanian language only to join the mass of young people at the unemployment office after graduation. These social inequalities within the Albanian population created political divisions. The minority was turning to integration into official institutions, while the majority of politically active Albanians were becoming increasingly alienated and open to nationalist ideas promoted by the underground Hoxist or bourgeois organisations. General economic backwardness, the growth of nationalism among Albanians, as well as the loss of primacy in local institutions, due to the introduction of the obligation to know the Albanian language and strict application of national keys, spread dissatisfaction among the Kosovo Serbs. Between 1961 and 1981, about 85,000 Serbs migrated from Kosovo to Serbia.

In the course of the 1980s, the migration of Serbs from Kosovo became a major mobilisation topic for nationalists inside Serbia. The thesis put forward was that Serbs were moving out due to systematic pressure from Albanian nationalists. The migration of Serbs from Kosovo to urban centres in Central Serbia in those years was part of a broader pattern of movement of Serbs from less developed regions in Yugoslavia (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dalmatia) to urban centres in Serbia and Vojvodina. Undoubtedly, many rural household disputes in Kosovo over land rights may have taken on nationalist connotations, while Serbs in local institutions may have felt marginalised due to the lack of knowledge of the Albanian language. However, it would be wrong to talk about a premeditated and organised expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo by Albanians. The economic crisis of the 1980s hit the underdeveloped regions of Yugoslavia the hardest, and the main motivation for emigration should certainly be sought in the worsening living conditions. The fact that 45,000 Albanians also left Kosovo during the 1970s speaks in favour of this argument. However, the yellow press, which was fuelling chauvinistic hysteria in Serbia at the time, was not interested in facts and an objective analysis of the problem. The newspapers were launching a campaign on the alleged mass rape of Serbian women, the endangerment of the Serb minority and the rise of lawlessness in Kosovo.

This toxic narratives in the media were encouraged by the official position of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, which, after new protests for better living conditions and larger autonomy by Albanians in 1981, characterised this movement as "counter-revolutionary". Racist ideas about Albanians as a population waging a "biological war" in Kosovo against Serbs through high birth rates were gradually spreading in the Serbian and Yugoslav public. It was again becoming legitimate to look at Albanians as the "fifth column" and "intruders" in Yugoslavia. After the violent crackdown on protests in 1981 by the army and the killing of eight protesters (according to official sources), military administration was established once again in Kosovo. In the following years the Albanian population was exposed to new waves of police repression and mass arrests. The broader context for the rise of chauvinistic ideas and repression of the Albanian population was a deep economic and political crisis of the Yugoslav project of building "socialism in one state". In these years, even minimal redistribution of funds for underdeveloped regions became a burden for pro-market economic reformers. On the other hand political leadership in each republic started pushing their own, national agendas, placing selfish local interest over the common development of the federation as a whole.

Restoration of capitalism and state discrimination

The dominance of narrow-minded republican interests over the perspective of collective Yugoslav development, as well as the supremacy of market reformers over the proponents of planned economy in Serbia was marked by the arrival of Slobodan Milošević at the head of the local party apparatus in the late 1980s. In order to strengthen its position in relation to other republics, the party and state bureaucracy in Serbia set the goal of abolishing the autonomous status of Vojvodina and Kosovo, as well as the cancelation of solidarity transfers for the development of Kosovo. In early 1989, Slobodan Milosevic launched an initiative to pass constitutional amendments that would significantly reduce Kosovo's autonomy, place the police and judiciary under Serbian control, and increase Belgrade's influence in the education system and economy. In February of that year, Kosovo Albanians opposed the announced measures with a series of demonstrations and a miners' strike. Belgrade responded with chauvinist-toned street mobilisations during which protesters demanded the arrest of Albanian politicians and the crackdown of protests in Kosovo. The federation reintroduced a state of emergency in the province as police raided the mines and broke up a miners' strike. The Kosovo leadership was purged shortly afterwards in March 1989.

Slobodan Milosevic Image NATOSlobodan Milošević, the face of Serbian nationalism / Image: NATO

What would happen in the coming years was the return of systemic discrimination against the Albanian population in Kosovo through the legal system. Tens of thousands of Albanian employees were fired through emergency measures, sanctioned for participating in demonstrations and forced to sign declarations of loyalty to the state of Serbia in local institutions, schools and hospitals. Albanian-language media was shut down or brought under control, while school and university curricula were cleansed of any content that did not fit into the new chauvinistic Serbian narrative. 

With the collapse of the Yugoslav institutions and the Yugoslav League of Communists, the leadership among the Albanian masses in Kosovo was taken over by organisations originating from the dissident-oriented intelligentsia embodied by Ibrahim Rugova. Instead of further confrontation with the Serbian authorities or attempts to participate in Serbian parliamentary politics and connect with anti-nationalist forces in Serbia, the Albanian leadership chose Gandhian resistance and the formation of parallel institutions. The hope was that the Western powers would recognise the existence of systemic segregation in Kosovo and restore some kind of autonomy within the framework of resolving other inter-republican conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

However, pacifist tactics and drawing the attention of foreign power brokers through self-victimisation did not work. Kosovo remained ignored by the "international community," trapped in a kind of permanent state of emergency within Serbia during the 1990s. The status quo worked well for nationalist politicians on both sides. By expelling Albanians from political life, Milošević gained a secure base of votes in the elections, while his party cronies and mafia gained territory where they could enjoy lawlessness and profit from discrimination against the local population. The legal restrictions on the right to purchase real estate for Albanian citizens and the expulsion of Albanians from the civil service created a whole network of corruption and a price list of services extorted from Albanians who needed basic state services. On the other hand, Ibrahim Rugova retained the status of the president of the parallel Albanian state, which allegedly stood in line for international recognition. This situation, of course, was not acceptable to the Albanian masses who were trapped in a system increasingly reminiscent of apartheid.

In the second half of the 1990s, the guerrilla group called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began attacks on Serbian police. As Marxists, we fully understand the rejection of passive resistance and armed opposition to the mafia regime established by Slobodan Milošević in the former autonomous province. However, the key question is what was the nature of the leadership of the armed struggle? What were its methods and what did they fight for? A cursory glance reveals that the KLA bears no resemblance to World War Two partisan guerrillas and heroes such as Ramiz Sadiku. KLA was also not a formation similar to Hoxhaist groups active in Kosovo after the Second World War, although its roots are linked to these illegal organisations. Like former "communists" in Milošević's party, who became nationalists overnight and became involved in the privatisation of social property, former activists of various anti-Titoist communist parties in Kosovo rejected "ideology" and merged with liberal dissidents on a platform of nationalism and reactionary pro-capitalist policies.

Hashim Thaci Image Estonian Foreign MinistryHashim Thaci, one of the leaders of the KLA who profited from war and service to imperialism / Image: Estonian Foreign Ministry

This situation was exploited by American imperialism, which appointed itself as the protector and mentor of the Albanian independence movement in Kosovo. The American imperialists did not do this out of any real concern for the human rights and freedom of the Albanian people. Supporting the Albanian national movement in Kosovo was another way for the United States and NATO countries to impose their military presence on the Balkans, whilst allowing their companies to set foot in Kosovo. It was also a way to put pressure on Milošević’s regime in order to force it into cooperation; or else destabilise it enough that it could be overthrown. With the help of NATO, the KLA managed to kick the Serbian repressive apparatus out of Kosovo. This certainly meant relief for the Albanian majority, but the working people of Kosovo paid a high price for this alliance with imperialism and the adoption of a bourgeois political platform.

More than two decades after the arrival of NATO troops in Kosovo, the country is still in a puppet position in relation to its foreign backers. Furthermore, the KLA's chauvinistic policy towards the Serb minority in Kosovo has pushed this community into the hands of nationalist patrons in Serbia. It thus opened the door to new territorial divisions (Northern Kosovo) and gave Belgrade a token to continue to question Kosovo's future status. These continuing tensions  provide an excuse for foreign forces to have a constant military presence on the ground to keep "ethnic conflicts" under control. After it underwent robbery by Milošević’s cronies, the former social property built by the working people of the whole of Kosovo fell into the hands of new war profiteers – former KLA commanders and foreign investors. The struggle for Kosovo's self-determination under the leadership of the nationalist intelligentsia, the petty bourgeoisie and the new lumpen businessmen ended in a dead-end street. Albanians in Kosovo remain hostages to negotiations by major powers. At the same time, the political organising of the working class and youth in Serbia is being sidelined with insistence on chauvinistic revanchism towards Albanians. How, then, can we break out of this vicious circle of political conflicts perpetrated by rival nationalist elites; elites who, under the pretext of protecting their people, keep the entire Balkans in misery and semi-colonial status?

The real enemy is in our own backyards

The Serbian working class and youth have no interest in supporting attempts to restore the dominance of the Serbian ruling class over Kosovo. Such a program would only subordinate them to Serbian political and business elites and enable further militarisation of Serbian society. Combat units and weapons bought by the Serbian state under the slogan of "return to Kosovo" will be used against Serbian workers at a point in time when they organise more seriously in struggle for their social and political rights. During the twentieth century, the Serbian state had a handful of opportunities to show that it was capable of developing Kosovo and gaining the trust of the majority Albanian population. Instead, it acted in a colonial and racist manner. After such a historical experience, it is completely understandable that the Albanian people would no longer want to live under the rule of the Serbian state.

Serbia and Kosovo Agreement Image The White HouseThe independence of Serbia and Kosovo in full light / Image: The White House

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh shows us that frozen conflicts leave room for a new outbreak of war, while the war in Donbas shows us that territories with disputed status can easily lead to greater imperialist conflict. What many who adhere to the slogan "Kosovo is Serbia" are not aware of is that, in the last instance, this is a call for war and ethnic cleansing, which would cost a large number of Serb and Albanian lives. There is no other way to reestablish Serbian control over a population utterly opposed to this. In all wars in former Yugoslavia, it was the criminals, politicians and capitalists who benefited the most, while the working people, who were served up as “cannon fodder,” bore the brunt of the restoration of capitalism. Many war veterans were disabled and abandoned by their newly created states as soon as they had fulfilled their military duty. In any new nationalist war, things will not be any different.

Communists in former Yugoslavia must be aware that the historical experience of life in all previous nation states in the Balkans inevitably causes Albanian people to be cautious and distrustful toward their Slavic neighbours. The blame for this is to be placed primarily, but not exclusively, at the doorstep of the Serbian bourgeoisie. The mistakes of the Titoist bureaucracy compromised even the Yugoslav communists, who until the end of the Second World War were known as uncompromising fighters against chauvinism and racism. The renewal of the revolutionary alliance of the Slavic and Albanian peoples in the Balkans today, must therefore begin with communists unequivocally supporting the historical aspirations of Kosovo Albanians to live in their own state.

The Yugoslav communists' support for the right of Kosovo Albanians to self-determination does not imply support for the comprador capitalist regime that has ruled Kosovo since 1999, nor does it imply support for the current imperialist occupation of Kosovo. On the contrary, by supporting this right, we call on the Kosovo working class to join a common struggle to expel all imperialist forces and their servants from the Balkans – from Pristina to Ljubljana, Zagreb, Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Podgorica, Belgrade and Skopje.

Our call for a joint struggle contains no hidden ifs or buts. We do not impose any special condition that we want the Kosovo Albanians to fulfil in order to “deserve” our support. Our support for Kosovo's right to self-determination stands regardless of who currently governs it. We reject the approach that requires the oppressed nation to “prove” to the oppressors that it is "worthy" of a right to self-determination! Such an approach is a reflection of the national arrogance of the dominant nations and an obstacle to workers' unity. We also disagree with those on the left who relativise the issue of the national oppression of Kosovo Albanians through abstractions and the belief that a solution for this issue must await class liberation. Today, the Albanian masses are indeed exploited by Albanian capitalists and multinational companies, but they are not exposed to the direct threat of harassment and persecution by the Serbian army or paramilitary militias. This is a great relief for the daily life of the local population and a precondition for the further development of organisation on a class basis.

Negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina are not conducted with the aim of finding a permanent solution to the “Serbian-Albanian conflict”, but as a cover for reaching neo-colonial "unequal agreements" with imperialist forces, primarily the United States. These agreements bring both Serbia and Kosovo into deeper economic dependence, handing control over their own countries and resources to imperialism. The only way to get the "peacekeeping" trump cards out of the hands of the imperialists is to reconcile Serbia and Kosovo, which means the recognition of Kosovo's right to self-determination and independence by the Serbian working class. Only in this way can the foundations be laid for future cooperation and joint struggle against global capital and its local exponents, as well as for the preservation of the Serbian heritage in Kosovo and the return of the displaced Serbian population to their homes.

At the same time, it is our duty to openly tell the progressive youth and workers in Kosovo that our support for the right to self-determination does not mean that we have illusions that national independence will solve the many economic and political problems facing all people in Kosovo today. As long as the Balkan countries are under the rule of their bourgeoisie, all historical problems will stubbornly return again and again, regardless of how the borders are drawn. Kosovo's formal independence does not entail automatic national sovereignty or economic progress. The recent failures of Vetëvendosje to establish a "welfare state" in Kosovo after its electoral triumph, even on a modest scale, clearly point to the limits of progressive social reforms on the capitalist periphery. Despite all the shortcomings of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the fact that it betrayed the proclaimed task of national liberation of Albanians, the emancipatory achievements that Kosovo witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s speak in favour of the fact that comprehensive economic, social and cultural prosperity is possible only within the workers' state and planned economy.

It is important to note that a large number of ordinary working people and peasants of all ethnicities lived a peaceful life as neighbours in Kosovo, even in times of the most turbulent nationalist hysteria fuelled by nationalist elites. This is still the case in some places today. Neighbours help each other, visit each other at home and partially understand the language of other communities. The focus of the bourgeois media on macro politics and conflict masks this level of solidarity at the micro level, which can be a significant basis for a new type of politics altogether. Most Serbs in the southern part of Kosovo are from poor peasant families who had nowhere to flee. A program of national equality and a social platform in these communities would certainly have more appeal than the chauvinistic policy of Belgrade. On the other hand, many Albanian families continue to have cultural and economic ties with Serbia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia. This remains an unrealised potential and a solid social base for a new Marxist organisation in Kosovo.

The Albanian people in Kosovo will never be free unless they fight for the freedom of the minority peoples surrounding them. We can learn a lot from the partisan movements in Albania and Yugoslavia in the fight against fascism. Full respect for the national rights of minority peoples and the establishment of solidarity on the ground were not mere "ideological maxims" but the most effective way to fight for national liberation and socialist revolution. If they want to achieve true independence, the progressive forces in Kosovo should aim to win over the Serb minority to their side. Otherwise, they risk creating a reactionary base for Serbian nationalism in northern Kosovo that will allow Belgrade and foreign powers to continue interfering in local politics. Respecting the rights of minorities does not mean implementing parliamentary quotas and national keys in institutions according to the bureaucratic models of the European Union. It means creating tangible solidarity on the ground through joint struggle and defence of neighbours from chauvinist attacks. Only in this way can interethnic trust be established and the prospects for a life worthy of a person within independent Kosovo be open to Serbs.

In order to achieve true self-determination and independence, the progressive movement in Kosovo would therefore have to sever political alliances with the Albanian nationalist and bourgeois political currents. The struggle for the national liberation of these privileged strata and the masses of the people are contradictory aspirations. As we can see, the former KLA leaders, as well as the heirs of Ibrahim Rugova, are ready to accept the semi-colonial status of Kosovo, as long as they can continue to accumulate their private wealth within this frame. The national independence of small nations in an imperialist world order is a mirage, because the local comprador bourgeoisie are firmly attached to global imperialist capital. All of them are looking for protectors in the imperialist forces. In exchange for foreign sponsorship, they are offering cooperation in the exploitation of their own people and the oppression of other small nations, especially neighbouring ones.

Finally, Kosovo's independence does not exhaust the broader dilemma of the Albanian national question in the Balkans. The demand of Albanians to live in one country in the Balkans is completely legitimate. This also applies to every other Balkan nation. Not least the Serbs, who share the Albanian experience of living in semi-sovereign territories under a foreign protectorate (the Republic of Srpska) or as national minorities in neighbouring states. The solution proposed by the Albanian bourgeois nationalist politicians is the perspective of the creation of "Greater Albania". However, the splitting of the territory of Montenegro and Macedonia and their unification with Albania and Kosovo is a clear path to war, ethnic cleansing and new bloodshed in the Balkans. Such moves would spread renewed hatred between the Balkan people, placing an additional burden on future generations. Just as Serbs could live in a joint state only as part of a Yugoslav project, the Albanians can achieve national unity only within the wider Balkan community of equal peoples.

The historical opportunity that was missed in the first years after the Second World War shows us the way forward. In the context of linking socialist revolutions in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece, the status of the Albanian national question could have been resolved within the Balkan Socialist Federation. Instead of a neglected, peripheral region of the Yugoslav state, Kosovo could have become an economic and cultural centre, linking wider regions in a coordinated development. A Balkan federation could have offered space for the flowering of national cultures of both the Albanian and Serbian people, in communication with the majority communities in Albania and Serbia. It could have also connected Kosovo with other complementary economies in the region and allowed it free access to the ports in Thessaloniki and Durres. Instead, the local communists turned to "national paths to socialism" and paved the way for the restoration of capitalism and national intolerance in the Balkans.

The national liberation of the Balkan peoples is possible only through socialist revolution, in which the working masses take control of their resources, their infrastructure and the industry they have built. History shows us that the socialist revolution in the Balkans can only be successful if Balkan workers fight for it together. The logic of economic and social development dictates that the revolutionary socialist order can thrive only by overcoming national borders and creating a federation of workers' states. For such a federation to be successful, it is necessary for all nations to enter it completely voluntarily and to be completely equal. That is why the Marxist organisation "Reds" advocates the recognition of Kosovo's right to self-determination, as a precondition for the Balkan socialist revolution and the unification of all Balkan workers into the Balkan Socialist Federation.

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