Kosovo Serbs, Serbian nationalist intellectuals, and officials of the Milošević Regime – part two

The consolidation of support for the social movement among Kosovo Serbs and the efforts of Milošević to break the resistance of Kosovo’s officials to the constitutional reform gradually affected political alliances in the provincial leadership, which had rarely followed ethnonational cleavage.

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Conflict Background


By Momčilo Pavlović

Before 1988, political alliances in Kosovo’s leadership had rarely followed ethnonational cleavage, and the views of most Albanian and Serb officials shifted over time with changes in the party’s policy. This was reflected in the demands of Kosovo Serb activists for the resignations of some Albanian and Serb officials and their occasional support for other officials, both Serbs and Albanians. The activists had generally been cautious about Serbs in Kosovo’s political establishment, feeling that their loyalty lay with the party’s policy of the day.(57) After 1981, a number of Serb high officials, originally from Kosovo, who had occupied posts in federal organs were sent back to influential positions in Kosovo’s leadership. The so-called weekend or traveling politicians, whose families stayed in Belgrade, had little connection with Kosovo Serb realities and were generally despised by ordinary people. The activists therefore continually sought allies among the leadership of Serbia but with little success.

Many authors consider 24 April 1987, the date of Milošević’s visit to Kosovo, to be the moment when the Kosovo Serbs started to follow his policy. His visit to Kosovo Polje was not originally planned. Kosovo’s officials designed Milošević’s itinerary in such a way that he would not visit predominantly Serb settlements and thus would not have to face protesters. The Kosovo Polje group then staged a protest over a fake incident to attract the attention of Serbia’s leadership. On 17 April the activists spread the word that Zoran Grujić, a university professor and coconspirator, had decided to emigrate from Kosovo. Apparently Grujić had been repeatedly interrogated by the police because of his links with the Kosovo Polje group. He claimed to have experienced problems at the University of Priština because of his Serb background. Within hours, around three hundred people gathered outside his house in protest. Of course, Grujić did not leave the province, but the activists exploited the case to invite Milošević to drop by on his Kosovo tour. Three days later Milošević, accompanied by Azem Vllasi, Kosovo’s party leader, came to deliver a speech before three thousand Kosovo Serbs outside a local primary school. At the end, the activists insisted that he come again, this time not just to talk but also to listen to their complaints. Milošević accepted the invitation and approved their request to choose their own representatives for the meeting.

Milošević and Vllasi arrived in Kosovo Polje for this meeting in the afternoon of 24 April. When cars with the politicians approached the building, a crowd of several thousand protesters was already waiting. They passionately chanted: “We want freedom, we want freedom!” Police literally carried Milošević into the building while the protesters struggled to enter as well. It turned out that local party officials had drafted their own list of speakers, and when the police tried to stop others from entering the building, the chaos began. The police responded by beating protesters with truncheons, while the protestors threw stones at policemen and the building. Milošević was then asked to speak to the protesters and try to calm them down. Milošević asked the protesters to choose their own representatives, ordered the police not to beat people, and asked the protesters to maintain order themselves. The latter accepted this with ovations, and the meeting continued until early morning. The representatives, in most cases farmers, skilled workers, and teachers, spoke emotionally about inequalities and the lack of protection for Serbs from Kosovo’s authorities. At the end, Milošević delivered a speech in which he made his position clear – namely his public disapproval of the use of force by the police.(58)

Milošević subsequently pulled all the strings to call a session of the Central Committee of Yugoslavia and demanded that specific targets be set for the performance of party and state organs in relation to the Kosovo problem. Milošević also demanded that a number of Kosovo’s former chief officials, including Fadilj Hoxha, a retired member of Tito’s old guard and an undisputed authority among Kosovo Albanians, be held accountable before the party for their alleged tacit approval of the so-called counterrevolution. Hoxha had already retired, and his removal from the party would not have important immediate consequences for the personal composition and policies of Kosovo’s leadership. However, by calling into question Hoxha’s credibility Milošević implicitly questioned the policy of federal leadership from the late 1960s and Kosovo’s highly autonomous status, which had been achieved under Hoxha’s leadership. As the intervention of Milošević related largely to the implementation of previously jointly approved policies and remained firmly on the Titoist course, Milošević gained support from officials from other republics without difficulty. However, the developments initiated clashes in the leadership of Serbia. Minor disagreements over policy details on Kosovo were exaggerated in the heat of the power struggle between the factions based on the personal networks of Milošević and those of his former protector Ivan Stambolić. These unfolded according to the rules of the game in socialist party-states, with little influence from society.(59)

Since the 1967–1974 constitutional reforms, the main concern of officials from Serbia had been the fragmented political structure of Serbia.(60) In the aftermath of the 1981 protests of Kosovo Albanians, Draža Marković and Petar Stambolić claimed that the eruption of protests had resulted from the unconstitutional extension of the autonomy of Serbia’s provinces, but they had little success in persuading officials from other republics to help strengthen Serbia’s central organs. Following the change of political generations, Ivan Stambolić reaffirmed the need for greater coordination between the central government of Serbia and its autonomous provinces and emphasized economic issues and the concerns of Kosovo Serbs. The rise of Milošević in 1987 changed little in this respect, and Milošević reiterated the demands of his predecessors. The change in leadership, however, turned the fortunes of the growing social movement. Whereas Stambolić had kept pressure on Kosovo’s officials to address the problems of Kosovo Serbs and ignored the protest networks, Milošević aimed to establish control over the mobilization by co-opting prominent activists. The change partly originated from the spread of mobilization so that it now had to be dealt with either through suppression or co-optation. Also, Milošević exploited the mobilization for his own ends and often provoked activists to publicly denounce his opponents. The activists did not object because they now felt a degree of protection from federal and provincial officials and their protests achieved greater visibility. Prominent activists were in turn under strong pressure to channel their initiatives toward official organizations and employ their influence over local networks to halt noninstitutional action.(61)

The growing influence of Milošević on prominent activists often failed to be transformed into action on the ground partly because the activists intended to proceed with protests until their demands had been fully addressed and partly because of the highly decentralized character of their protest networks. Although influential, the Kosovo Polje group by no means presided over the networks, and other activists at times fully ignored its advice. Around thirty to forty prominent activists from various parts of Kosovo gathered occasionally and commanded sufficient influence to prevent any initiatives of which they disapproved or to start new ones. In the summer of 1988 the activists formed a protest committee that quickly became another important decision-making center. None of the three main circles of power within the social movement, however, could control a group of radical activists who at times would not listen to anybody’s advice and proceeded with action, often getting support from one or two hundred supporters. The local networks, therefore, proceeded with protests across Kosovo. To placate Milošević they now staged all protests, even large outdoor gatherings, in the form of meetings of official organizations. In a growing number of cases officials who attended the meetings were booed at or prevented from speaking; in other cases the audience left the meetings altogether.

In the spring of 1988 prominent activists became increasingly skeptical about the claims of Milošević that a constitutional change aimed at empowering the central government of Serbia would occur in the near future. Convinced that pressure from the grass roots was essential to political change, they launched a petition in May 1988, before the federal party conference—the so-called small party congress—and soon presented it to officials of Yugoslavia and Serbia with nearly 50,600 signatures. The reason that nearly a quarter of Kosovo Serbs found themselves as signatories to the petition was that many activists signed up their whole families. Despite this wild exaggeration, the petition was a sort of plebiscite of Kosovo Serbs. The petitioners demanded that the federal organs temporarily establish direct rule in the province in order to establish security for the Serbs or, alternatively, recognize their right to self-defence. They also threatened that they might collectively emigrate from the province as a last resort.(62) Aware of the limits to the protest groups’ organizational resources, officials in Yugoslavia and Serbia were nonetheless concerned that any activities under the label of collective emigration might trigger public unrest on a large scale. Milošević resolutely demanded a halt to such activities.(63)

Having to drop an important protest strategy and fearing a decline in participation by dispirited supporters, prominent activists found an alternative target—a protest in Novi Sad, the largest city in Vojvodina. After the unexpected success of the protest, the protest organizers and their nonelite allies outside Kosovo launched a series of protests in Vojvodina and Montenegro during the summer.(64) The protests coincided with a spiraling conflict among the elites of both republics and provinces over the amendments to the constitutions of Yugoslavia and Serbia, partly regarding the relations between Serbia’s central government and its autonomous provinces. In September Kosovo Serbs began to protest all over the province. The activists now engaged in cooperation with Kosovo Serb intellectuals because they needed well-educated people to deliver speeches at a growing number of protests.(65) Although the local Serb intellectuals had timidly signaled their discontent with the position of Serbs in Kosovo, few of them took part in protest activities prior to late summer 1988.

The consolidation of support for the social movement among Kosovo Serbs and the efforts of Milošević to break the resistance of Kosovo’s officials to the constitutional reform gradually affected political alliances in the provincial leadership, which had rarely followed ethnonational cleavage. The first signs of rising tensions occurred in early 1988 when several Serb officials from the Priština Committee openly supported prominent activists. The September protest campaign coincided with a break between Kosovo Albanian and Serb members of the Provincial Committee. Serbs now supported Milošević’s demand for chief officials in Kosovo to resign because of their alleged obstruction of the party’s policy; Albanians defended their leaders and objected to the significant constitutional changes. In the aftermath of the purges of Kosovo Albanian officials and the abrogation of Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, Milošević filled key political and public-sector positions with low-ranking Kosovo Serb officials, mainly those who had little connection with the grassroots mobilization. Because the constitutional changes and the greater involvement of the government of Serbia in the affairs of Kosovo met many important demands of the Kosovo Serbs, the movement swiftly disintegrated.

Kosovo under autonomy is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), the extracts of which will be published on TransConflict.com every Friday.


57) Budimirović, interview.

58) Based on detailed eyewitness accounts of the events in Nedeljna Borba, 25–26 April 1987, 9; Borba, 19 January 1993, 15; Borba, 20 January 1993, 15; and interviews of Budimirović, Šolević, and Kecman by Vladisavljević. For all seventy-eight speeches see the full transcript from the meeting published in Borba, 8, 9–10, and 11 May 1987.

59) Nebojša Vladisavljević, “Institutional Power and the Rise of Milošević.”

60) Draža Marković, interview by Nebojša Vladisavljević, 16 August 2000.

61) Budimirović, Šolević, and Kecman, interviews, and Dušan Ristić cited in Antić, “Srbija nema rešenje za Kosovo.”

62) Copy of the petition in Vladisavljević’s possession. See excerpts in “Iz peticije 50.000 potpisnika,” Danas, 5 July 1988.

63) Budimirović and Šolević, interviews, and Mićo Šparavalo, a prominent activist, cited in Sava Kerčov, Jovo Radoš, and Aleksandar Raič, Mitinzi u Vojvodini 1988. godine: rađanje političkog pluralizma (Novi Sad: Dnevnik, 1990), 243–44.

64) Darko Hudelist, Kosovo: bitka bez iluzija (Zagreb: Centar za informacije i publicitet, 1989).

65) Stevan Marinković and Migo Samardžić, prominent activists, cited in Kerčov, Radoš, and Raič, Mitinzi u Vojvodini, 229–30, 241.

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



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