Kosovo, 1998: Origins of the KLA

From History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, by Timothy Garton Ash (Vintage, 1999), pp. 320-324:

The fresh red blood on the fresh white snow looks unreal, like a new avant-garde exhibit at the Tate Gallery in London. But it is entirely real. This is the blood of two dead Serb policemen, shot at dawn, almost certainly by the soldiers of a tough local commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), violating the October cease-fire….

Our knowledge of the KLA is still fragmentary, partly because this guerrilla army is itself quite fragmentary. It has, as one Western military observer politely puts it, a “rather horizontal” command structure. Each region is different, and regional commanders behave like local bandit chiefs. Nonetheless, we can establish a few significant things about its history, leaders, and support.

First and foremost, Its emergence is the result of Kosovar Albanians despairing of the nonviolent path that they adopted after the province was robbed of its autonomy by Milošević in 1989 and Yugoslavia began to fall apart in 1990-1991. Under their unofficially elected “President of the Republic of Kosova,” Ibrahim Rugova, they organized an extraordinary alternative state, with its own taxes, parliamentary committees, private health service, and, most impressive, unofficial education system, from primary school to university. To the frustration of Western policy makers, Rugova was unbending in his commitment to the goal of independence. To their relief, he was equally unbending in his attachment to nonviolent means. How did he propose to square the circle? By the “internationalization” of the Kosovo problem.

Even in the early 1990s, there were those who thought change would come only with the help of more traditional methods. Many Albanians from this region go to Western Europe for training and to earn money to send home. So did they. Ramush Haradinaj, the local commander almost certainly responsible for that blood in the snow, went off to get his military training in the French Foreign Legion. In Priština, people recall first hearing of a KLA in 1993. But then it was something like one of the terrorist splinter groups from the Western European student movement of 1968. One of the KLA’s more important current political leaders, Hashim Thaci, code name “Snake,” was a student activist in Priština who then went to study in Albania and to raise funds in the West. But most of the political activists who came from three generations of formative student political protest—in 1968, 1981, and 1990-1991—were still for nonviolence.

What changed the balance? The startling answer I am given is: “Dayton.” I’m told this by the veteran political prisoner Adem Demaci, who is now the KLA’s political representative. He dates the true emergence of the KLA to spring 1996, just a few months after the November 1995 Dayton agreement on Bosnia. I’m also told this by Veton Surroi, a favorite source for visitors from the West, whose influential daily newspaper nonetheless supported (some even say inflamed) the armed struggle. And by several others.

They say they drew two lessons from Dayton. After more than five years of their Gandhiesque struggle for independence, the United States made a deal with Milošević over Bosnia without securing even a restoration of mere autonomy for Kosovo. So, lesson one: Nonviolence wasn’t working. Meanwhile, in Bosnia itself, the Dayton agreement went a long way toward recognizing ethnic realities created by force. Lesson two: Force pays.

There’s an element of retrospective rationalization in this account. This is not what these same people were telling me in Priština in March 1997. But there is also an uncomfortable element of truth. So long as Rugova kept the lid on his own people, and so long as we felt we had to deal with Milošević over Bosnia, we weren’t going to push him on Kosovo.

The armed rising then grew from two further developments: the looting of arsenals during the violent implosion of Albania in spring 1997, which gave the KLA access to Kalashnikovs galore, and the brutality of Serbian “reprisals” against whole extended families and villages, starting in February 1998. As always, an oppressive army and police were the best recruiting sergeants for the guerrillas.

1 Comment

Filed under nationalism, U.S., war, Yugoslavia

One response to “Kosovo, 1998: Origins of the KLA

  1. Pingback: Albania’s Leftover Weapons Problem « Far Outliers

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