Socialism Today                     The monthly journal of the Socialist Party

Issue 39 contents

About Us

Back Issues



Contact Us



Issue 39, June 1999

The KLA and the struggle for Kosovar self-determination

    Rugova eclipsed
    The KLA at Rambouillet
    Swimming with the NATO sharks

The Kosovar-Albanian people, who made up 90% of Kosova's population, should have the basic democratic right of deciding their own status for themselves: the right to self-determination. Even before the forced, mass deportation of the majority of the Kosovar Albanians from their homes, the overwhelming majority supported independence. Years of repressive policy by Serbia's nationalistic regime, especially since Milosevic illegally revoked Kosova's autonomous status in 1989, ruled out anything falling short of this. Now, nothing will reconcile ethnic-Albanians to the Republic of Serbia.

      - LYNN WALSH writes.

FACED WITH VIOLENT repression and forcible expulsions, the Kosovar Albanians clearly have the right to armed self-defence. Socialists must support their right to return to their homes and defend their communities against further attack. But can we give political support to the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), to which a growing number of Kosovars, both at home and from the Kosovar diaspora, have turned?

The KLA (Ushtri Çlirimtare e Kosoves or UÇK in Albanian) has evolved with the changing political situation in Kosova. Detailed information and documentation is limited, so our assessment has to be tentative. Nevertheless, with more reports now emerging, the KLA's political trajectory has become much clearer.

  Until 1997 the KLA was a tiny organisation. Its origins go back to Kosova's political upheavals of the early 1980s. Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution gave autonomy to Kosova, but (unlike the six republics) not full republican status. After the death of Tito, students in Pristina demanded full federal status - with the constitutional right to secede. The federal Stalinist state clamped down on the independence activists, sentencing many to long jail terms. Later, many went into exile, joining the Albanian 'guest-worker' communities in Switzerland, Germany and elsewhere. In 1982, a group of them formed the small organisation (LRSHJ) which eventually (in 1993) became the Popular Movement for Kosova (LPK). Ideologically, the LPK was 'Maoist', that is, linked to the Albanian Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha, who sided with China against the Soviet leadership in the Sino-Soviet split. Like other Stalinist-led nationalist movements, national demands - for an independent Kosova and a Greater Albania (uniting all the Albanians of Kosova, Western Macedonia, eastern Montenegro, and Albania itself) - were to the forefront, though at that time it was undoubtedly envisaged that the unified state would adopt the Albanian model.

Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, the LPK, through a series of secret meetings during 1992-93 in Skopje and Pristina, played a key role in founding the KLA. Links with Kosovar Albanian mafias operating in the drug trade and black-marketeering in Western Europe provided a source of funds, as well as connections with nationalist clan leaders in Kosova. KLA activists within Kosova mounted sporadic attacks on Serbian police and other officials, but still had little impact on the political situation.

Until after the end of 1995, Kosovar Albanian politics were dominated by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) led by Ibrahim Rugova. Rugova was a pacifist, who came out for independence after the break-up of the old Yugoslavia, but argued for a Gandhi-type policy of passive resistance. In 1992, when hundreds of thousands were being dispossessed and many hundreds murdered in the barbarous campaigns of 'ethnic-cleansing' in Bosnia, Rugova argued: "We would have no chance of resisting the Serbian army. In fact, the Serbs only wait for a pretext to attack the Albanian population and wipe it out. We believe that it is better to do nothing and stay alive than be massacred". Horrified by the brutal wars in Croatia and Bosnia, the majority of Kosovars were inclined to support Rugova's policy. In any case, unlike the Croatians, Serbs and Bosnian-Muslims, the land-locked Kosovar nationalists had no access to supplies of arms at that time.

  Following Milosevic's unconstitutional revocation of Kosova's autonomous status in 1989, the LDK organised an unofficial referendum which gave overwhelming support for the declaration of the 'Republic' of Kosova in 1991, with its own parliament and government-in-exile. Rugova was elected president in 'illegal' elections in May 1992 with a massive majority (most of the Serbian minority abstained).

The LDK set up parallel institutions - a shadow administration, universities, schools, clinics - to prove that Kosova could function on its own. Crucial to this strategy was Rugova's belief that the US and European powers, impressed by the Kosovars' peaceful approach, would step in to support an independent Kosova.

This dream was shattered by the Dayton Accords in 1995, which imposed a US-sponsored settlement on Bosnia-Hercegovina. Despite Milosevic's support for brutal 'ethnic-cleansing' by Sebian paramilitaries in Bosnia, the European Union rewarded him with recognition for the rump Yugoslav Federation (Serbia and Montenegro). The Serbian Republic was recognised as an autonomous entity within Bosnia. But Kosova was not even mentioned.

The younger generation especially (with over 70% of Kosovars under 30 years old) turned against LDK pacifism. Apart from Dayton, there was a growing feeling that the policy of parallel institutions was only reinforcing the apartheid-type policy which the Serbian regime was trying to oppose on Kosova through the purging of ethnic Albanians from both public and private-sector jobs. Moreover, while the Kosovars still had to pay tax to the Serbian government, the parallel institutions had to be financed through a 3% levy on the incomes of Kosovar exiles (over 600,000 in Western Europe and around 300,000 in the USA and Canada).

In 1997 the veteran liberal-democratic nationalist, Adem Demaçi (jailed as a political prisoner by the Yugoslav state for 28 years), came out against Rugova's policy. He called for Rugova's government to start meeting in Pristina and for an active struggle against Serbian authority. The leader of the Social-Democratic Party, Luljeta Puca-Beqiri, also publicly attacked Rugova. Proclamation of the Kosovar Republic had been a step forward, she said, but Rugova's "whole policy relied on waiting for an international intervention that never materialised. The eight years since 1990 have been tragically wasted".

  top     Rugova eclipsed

THE POLITICAL TIDE had turned against Rugova and the LDK towards the KLA. At the same time, a source of arms opened up in 1997. When Sali Berisha's regime in Albania was brought down after the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes, state armouries were looted, releasing a flood of cheap arms onto the market. In Western Europe the LPK stepped up its campaign to persuade Kosovars to switch their voluntary 3% income tax from Rugova's government-in-exile to the KLA. This was organised through the Homeland Calling Fund, which provided funds to buy arms and training from Western and Croatian military officers. Within Kosova, the KLA began to establish more of an underground network, launching attacks on Serbian security forces.

During 1996-97, the KLA began to recruit the support of clan leaders in Kosova, including the influential Adem Jashari, from Prekaz in the central Drenica region. These traditional leaders were through-and-through nationalists, many of them the sons and grandsons of the Bali Kombhtar fascist militias who, in the second world war, had fought with the Italian fascists for a Greater Albania and collaborated with the German SS against Tito's partisans. They came together with the former Stalinist nationalists on the common aim of independence now, a Greater Albania later.

Jakup Krasniqi, a KLA leader, said: "I do not think we have an ideology. In fact we do not have time for such things even if we were interested in them, because we have our main job to do, which is the task of liberation". In reality, however, liberation movements always have a political content. Without a programme consciously expressing the interests of the exploited classes, national movements inevitably fall under the political influence of other social forces. Historically, they have been dominated by sections of the landlords and capitalists seeking their own national arena in which to exploit workers and peasants.

In the post-war period, because of the deep crisis in capitalism in the 'Third World', the leaders of many national liberation movements adopted the methods and the model of the ruling bureaucracy of the Stalinist states as an alternative to capitalism. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist states, the model of the centrally-planned economy under a ruling bureaucracy is no longer an option for liberation movements. It is the international situation, as much as the balance of forces within Kosova, which has increased the influence of the pro-capitalist nationalists at the expense of the former Stalinists within the KLA. Even though guerrilla movements invariably draw support from the most exploited strata, there is always a danger of militarisation and bureaucratisation of their leadership when the guerrilla forces are not linked to democratic organisations of mass struggle.

Masked, uniformed KLA fighters first appeared in public at a mass funeral of victims of the Serbian security forces in November 1997. Village militias began to form and adopt the name of the KLA. When the KLA launched an offensive early in 1998 there was, in reality, already the beginnings of a popular uprising. This was given a massive impulse by the attack by Serbian military and paramilitaries on the central Drenica region at the end of February 1998. Serbian forces murdered 80 members of Jashari's extended family and mounted a heavy assault on Prekaz, resulting in several hundred dead and around 20,000 fleeing the town. This massacre provoked the beginnings of a popular uprising, with the KLA growing from around 300 to a movement of around 30,000 within a few weeks.

  More money and volunteers flowed from abroad, including ethnic Albanians who had fought in the Croatian militias in 1991-92. A large strata of Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo swung over to the KLA. The KLA appointed Adem Demaçi and his Kosova Parliamentary Party to be their political voice. "The politicians have completely lost control of the situation", said one politician: "Young people are just waiting to get the weapons they need to fight".

There was clearly the potential at that point for a mass struggle linking democratic organisations of workers, peasants, poor traders and intellectuals to democratic, armed militias. The KLA leadership, however, pursued a predominantly 'military' strategy. KLA forces took control of areas that were solidly inhabited by ethnic Albanians, forcing Serbian forces to retreat. After five months, the KLA controlled around a third of the province, but it banned all political parties in the liberated villages and (according to reports) physically attacked the Serb, Roma, and Goran (Islamised Macedonian) minorities in an attempt to drive them out.

Initially, the Serbian forces were forced to beat a retreat. Within a short time, however, the Serbian regime launched a counter-offensive and began to retake control of the liberated villages. The KLA was not strong enough to defend the liberated areas. The Serbian forces began to systematically deploy the 'ethnic-cleansing' tactics previously used in Bosnia, using military terror tactics, torture of suspected activists and assassinations to drive out villagers suspected of KLA sympathies. During 1998 at least 800 people were killed by Serbian forces, and around 150,000 displaced from their homes.

The US leadership became alarmed at the development of a mass Kosovar-Albanian liberation struggle. On a visit to Pristina in February 1998, the US special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, denounced the KLA as "without any question a terrorist group" - undoubtedly encouraging Milosevic to go on the offensive. At the same time, the US attempted to establish a more malleable Kosovar fighting force under their control. Nominally under 'president' Rugova's leadership, the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo (FARK) was set up, with funds from the Saudi Arabian regime and military support from the Turkish regime. In September, however, the KLA assassinated Ahmet Krasniqi, FARK's designated leader, in Tirana. Nothing has been subsequently heard about this proposed force.

In October 1998 the US special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, intervened, persuading Milosevic to accept a ceasefire. The Serbian forces partially withdrew from Kosova, but as they did so the KLA stepped up its operations. Well supplied with arms coming through Albania and Macedonia, the KLA seized positions abandoned by the Serbs. Threatened with loss of control of Kosova, Milosevic renewed the Serbian offensive.

The Racak massacre on 15 January 1999 was, in reality, just one appalling example of a series of atrocities carried out by Serbian forces - but it was seized on by the US as the justification for presenting Milosevic and the Kosovar leaders with an ultimatum to attend talks on the basis of a non-negotiable ten-point statement of principles. Milosevic was threatened with military reprisals if he failed to comply.

The US plan was drawn up by the US ambassador to Macedonia, Christopher Hill, at the end of 1998. The frontiers of Yugoslavia would remain unchanged, to avoid setting any precedent for challenges to other borders (especially those of Macedonia). Within those frontiers, however, Kosova would be granted 'substantial autonomy', which would in practice give it most of the internal attributes of a state. Implementation would be guaranteed by the occupation of Kosova by Nato forces. In November/December, US diplomats for the first time opened up direct talks with the KLA leadership (in a series of meetings in Switzerland, Kosova, and the US). There was evidently a concerted drive to get KLA support for the US peace plan, which was subsequently presented to both sides at the Rambouillet talks.

  top     The KLA at Rambouillet

DETAILS OF SOME crucial aspects of the Rambouillet negotiations remain shrouded in obscurity. Full particulars of the 'military implementation' memoranda remain secret. Moreover, various promises were undoubtedly made to both the Serbian regime and the Kosovar delegation, which never met face-to-face at the Rambouillet 'proximity' talks. Contrary to many reports, the Kosovar delegation, which was dominated by KLA leaders (while Rugova was sidelined) initially agreed to the Interim Agreement for Peace and Self-Government (which included 24 'non-negotiable principles/basic elements'). The Kosovars appeared to accept it on the basis that the Interim Agreement, if accepted by both sides, would run for three years - pending an exercise of the will of the people to decide its future status. This was taken by the Kosovars to mean a referendum in Kosova, though this was not explicitly stated. They accepted that the demilitarisation of the KLA would involve its transformation into a civilian (armed) police force. And they welcomed the proposal for a 30,000-strong Nato force to ensure compliance.

The Kosova delegation made 'constructive' comments on the draft, attempting to fill in the details in their favour. The Serbian/Yugoslav delegation, however, attempted to obstruct the talks, threatening to pull out at the last moment. Despite the Serbian tactics, a few days before the deadline Holbrooke flew to Belgrade to see Milosevic - and subsequently returned to Rambouillet to revise the 'non-negotiable' points in favour of Serbia by explicitly specifying Serbian sovereignty over Kosova and deleting referendums to the 'will of the people'.

The Kosova delegation rejected this revision, but under intense pressure from the US - including the personal intervention of Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright - all but one of the delegation agreed to sign the principles. Hashim Thaci, the KLA's chief of intelligence, refused to sign - and forced the US to accept a three-week adjournment to allow the delegation to conduct consultations in Kosova. Whether this was because Thaci opposed the deal on principle or wanted time to bring other KLA leaders on board is not clear.

  From subsequent events, it can be deduced that in this period there was an intense struggle within the leadership of the KLA. There is little doubt that the US promised increased military support to the KLA so long as they signed up to the US plan. Clearly, the military wing of the KLA leadership came out on top. Evidently they calculated that collaboration with Nato was the only way they could reestablish themselves as an effective force within Kosova. No doubt the KLA leaders believe that a three-year period of autonomy under Nato protection will be a stepping-stone towards independence, even a Greater Albania at a later date. By enthusiastically embracing Nato, however, the KLA leaders have effectively ruled out an independent, mass struggle by the Kosovars to liberate the country.

The KLA's propaganda changed. Before Rambouillet, the Voice of Kosovo, previously the newspaper of the main KLA faction, the LPK, still proclaimed 'Long Live Marxism-Leninism' on its masthead, and advertised books by Enver Hoxha and other Albanian 'Maoists'. These old Stalinist ornaments, however, were dropped from the 25 April issue, which carried the headline 'Nato, Thank You'. The KLA leadership increasingly denounced 'party or political interests', and vehemently attacked the grouping of Adem Demaçi. Although a radical bourgeois-democrat, Demaçi rejected the KLA leaders' capitulation on the question of autonomy and denounced collaboration with the US and Nato. "Both peoples (Serbians and Albanians)", Demaçi demanded, "must act against imperialism". He reasserted his idea of a new Federation of Balkania, based on an appeal to anti-nationalist Serbs to form a new federation in which Serbia, Montenegro and Kosova would have equal rights, with recognition for the rights of all minorities. Against the militaristic methods of the KLA, he called for a combination of political and military struggle.

When the 'peace talks' resumed in Paris on 15 March, the Kosova delegation signed the Interim Agreement. Serbia (with the support of Russia's representative in the Contact Group) accepted, at least on paper, Kosova autonomy but rejected the proposal for a Nato implementation force. On 23 March the parliament in Belgrade voted to reject the Interim Agreement. The following day US air strikes began, provoking a massive escalation of the violent expulsion of the Kosovar Albanian population from their towns and villages.

  top     Swimming with the NATO sharks

"THE POPULATION IS a sea", said Mao Zedong, "in which the guerrilla swims like a fish". One of Milosevic's aims in driving out the Kosova Albanians was to deprive the KLA of its basis of support. Within a few weeks after the 24 March, Serbian forces had dispossessed well over a million Kosovars, 500,000 of them seeking shelter within Kosova. For a time, the KLA kept control of a number of areas, attacking Serb forces and attempting to protect the Kosovars seeking shelter in the hills or attempting to escape across the borders. But the KLA forces could not withstand the Serbian onslaught, which seems to have been barely affected by Nato bombing for six or seven weeks. The KLA clearly did not have either the arms or the supplies to take on Serbian forces and provide for the dispossessed Kosovars, who lacked shelter, food and medicines. By mid-May, according to the military journal, Jane's Defence Weekly, the KLA had only about 4,000 fighters still left in Kosova, penned into three small areas. Most of its force of around 20,000 had fled to Albania to regroup. (Independent, 14 May)

There is mounting evidence that the US is giving increasing covert support to the KLA to assist the regroupment and training of its forces. From the start of Nato's bombardment, some US establishment strategists were urging "a deliberate decision by the West to arm the KLA", as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's former national security adviser put it. (Guardian, 31 March) Other commentators are pressing for the development of the KLA as a 'proxy force' for Nato. Until recently, Nato leaders referred to the KLA as 'shadowy', 'untrustworthy', etc. The Western powers were opposed to officially recognising the KLA, firstly because it stood for independence which they opposed, and secondly to avoid the dangerous precedent of supporting an allegedly left-wing liberation army. Severely restricted by the lack of its own ground forces in Kosova, however, US policy has changed, though not openly. KLA fighters have been airlifted out to Albania by US helicopters. "There are signs (of) air support being provided to the latest KLA offensive in south-western Kosovo", writes Michael Smith, a correspondent 'with the KLA' for the right-wing Daily Telegraph: "It is not too late to give the KLA the total support it deserves and thereby to pull victory from the jaws of what otherwise is looking like it may become a very embarrassing defeat". (Daily Telegraph, 18 May)

Officially, according to spokesperson Jamie Shea, the position is that "Nato has no direct contact with the KLA". (Independent, 15 May) "This is a total lie", comments Robert Fisk: "Nato liaises with the KLA, holds security and intelligence meetings with its commanders, maintains radio contact with the KLA men in Kosovo. Nato officials (including James Shea) regularly announce KLA operations with approval". (Independent, 15 May)

  Another indication of the military upgrading of the KLA was the announcement (officially confirmed by the KLA) that a former brigadier-general in the Croatian army, Agim Ceku, had been appointed as its new leader. (Independent, 14 May) Ceku, a Kosovar Albanian, was one of the key planners behind 'Operation Storm' in which Croatian forces, backed by Germany, drove over 200,000 Serbs out of the Krajina region of Croatia.

Clearly, the current KLA leadership has entered into close collaboration with the US. Now that most of the Kosovar Albanians have been dispossessed, the KLA is a fish out of water - though it has enormous prestige and support amongst the refugees in the camps. Instead of building a political base among the Kosovar-Albanians, however, the KLA has linked its future to Nato. But with their predominant economic and military power, the Western powers, dominated by the US, will set the terms for any collaboration.

When Nato forces occupy Kosova, or at least part of Kosova, they will establish a Nato protectorate. As in Bosnia now, every aspect of economic, social and political life will be ultimately controlled by the Nato commander. It would suit Nato's purpose to transform the KLA into a police force to maintain law and order within Nato's framework. Their role, in Nato's scenario, would be similar to that of the repressive security forces of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which polices the West Bank and Gaza on behalf of the US and the Israeli state.

There are undoubtedly tensions in the KLA-US relationship. Commenting on the recent discussions of the G7 and Russia, a leading KLA spokesperson, Jakup Krasniqi, stated: "After all that has happened in Kosovo we cannot discuss any more the disarming of the KLA". But this is a central element of the deal floated in Germany on 7 May. (International Herald Tribune, 8 May) Krasniqi also rejected any suggestion of the partition of Kosova (which has undoubtedly featured in recent big power negotiations) and insisted that the KLA would only support a peace deal involving a Nato-led military force entering Kosova, not a UN force as proposed by Serbia and Russia.

At a certain stage there is likely to be conflict between the US and the KLA. Whether the present KLA leadership will command the support of all those ethnic Albanians who want to fight for the liberation of their country remains to be seen. Splits in the organisation certainly cannot be ruled out, certainly when Kosovar aspirations come into conflict with the realities of a US-dominated Nato protectorate.

Nato is an instrument of great-power oppression, not a champion of self-determination. A genuine liberation struggle calls for an armed movement based on democratic mass organisations of the Kosovar workers and peasants, combining political and armed struggle on the basis of a programme of social transformation in the interests of the workers and all exploited strata.

SOURCES: Together with daily press reports, especially from the International Herald Tribune and the Independent (London), this article draws on the following: Tim Judah, KLA Is Still A Force To Be Reckoned With, Wall Street Journal, 9 April 1999, and Judah, A Short History Of Kosovo, Prospect (London), May 1999; Marc Weller, The Rambouillet Conference On Kosovo, International Affairs, 75/2, 1999; Chris Hedges, Kosovo's Next Masters?, Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999; J-A Drens and S Nouvel, Bloodshed And Bargaining In Kosovo, Le Monde Diplomatique, English edition (LMD-E), April 1998; Christophe Chiclet, The Rise Of The Kosovar Freedom Fighters, LMD-E, May 1999; P-M de La Gorce, Behind The Rambouillet Talks, LMD-E, May 1999; Jeffrey Smith, Kosovar Rebel Upsets Western Strategy, International Herald Tribune, 25 February 1999; Kosovo: Inside The KLA/UÇK, International Viewpoint, April 1999; Michael Karadjis, What Is The KLA?, Green-Left Weekly (Australia), 21 April 1999.

Home | Issue 39 contents | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page