1981 demonstrations in Kosovo

By branding the 1981 protests as the continuity of “Albanian counterrevolution”, the Yugoslav leadership was in denial about the real problems facing Kosovo: its unequal political status, the socioeconomic crises that resulted in deeply divided national communities, and the nationalist sentiments that grew out of the events of 1981.

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By Momčilo Pavlović

In March 1981, a little less than a year after Tito’s death, demonstrations broke out in Kosovo. These demonstrations came as a surprise to the political leadership and to the public in general. Later, party and federal authorities blamed the Albanian leadership for not being strict enough in fighting nationalism and, then, for covering it up and not realizing the true causes of the problem. Yugoslav—especially Serbian—politicians and public opinion after 1981 always pointed out the continuity of “Albanian counterrevolution.” At the time, terms such as counterrevolution and irredentism were in common use. By branding them counterrevolutionaries, the Yugoslav leadership was in denial about the real problems facing Kosovo: its unequal political status, the socioeconomic crises that resulted in deeply divided national communities, and the nationalist sentiments that grew out of the events of 1981.

Disagreements and controversies surround any discussion of the intentions and motivations of the demonstrators. The initial riot began in the cafeteria at the University of Priština, whose students were expressing frustration at and concern over a number of issues of some immediacy to them: unemployment and the inability of the federal state to recognize the demographic boom in higher education in Kosovo. These dissatisfactions were symbolized by inedible food and the squalid living conditions at the overcrowded and underfunded university. Kosovo’s ratio of students was 274.7 per 1,000 inhabitants, the highest in the SFRY, compared to the national average of 194.9.(22) Initially, Serbian students at the university joined in the protests. Extrapolating from their experiences, these youthful protesters fixed on the broader theme of the inequities for all students in the province and for Albanians in particular. The demonstrations grew into mass protests all across Kosovo, and the main goal appeared to be the creation of a republic and not secession or unification with Albania, even though some support for the latter could be found.(23)

After the 1981 demonstrations the Kosovo question became the country’s critical political problem. Everyone agreed that the whole country should exert itself in searching for a solution. Many protesters were arrested. Mahmut Bakalli was recalled from the post of president of the provincial committee of Kosovo, and Veli Deva was appointed in his place (he was previously himself recalled by Bakalli in 1971). The rector of Priština University was also recalled.

It is important to point out that until 1990 the Kosovo question was treated on the federal level, with significant differences of opinion.(24) The most important tasks were undertaken by federal institutions, not by Serbian ones. On 17 November 1981, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia agreed on a document titled “Political Platform for Action of the Yugoslav League of Communists in the Development of Socialist Self-Management, Brotherhood and Unity and Spirit of Community.” In this document demonstrations were called “aggressive, ruthless, brutal and devastating actions with the scope of forming the Republic of Kosovo, which would secede from Serbia and Yugoslavia.”

What is interesting is how the Yugoslav central authorities, as well as the international community (which also wanted nothing to do with the complex national issues being raised with the 1981 events), reacted to the events. Lacking any hard evidence of outside agitators, the LCY turned to the Kosovo Albanian leadership, who were accused of not waging an effective campaign against “greater Albanian nationalism and irredentism.” The term irredenta in the hands of LCY officials meant “not only organized anti-Yugoslav activities for the purpose of uniting Kosovo with Albania, but almost any kind of Albanian national feelings or popular resentment.”(25) The LCY really feared the rise of a mass-based separatist movement, which would constitute a major threat to the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. The vagaries of the causes of the demonstrations and their organizers did not prevent the LCY from pursuing the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of 226 workers for “organized activity” as well as “verbal crimes.”(26) From this time forward, Kosovo Albanians would make up the highest percentage of political prisoners in the SFRY. Amnesty International and others noted that by the mid-1980s plainclothesmen and military checkpoints proliferated across the province.(27)

Despite the delusions of the party leadership, most of the organizations advocating some type of Albanian nationalism were formed after the riots. According to Aleksandar Tijanić, “it is impossible that militant chauvinists and separatists have branches in every little village, enterprise, school, or sports association where inter-ethnic incidents are occurring.”(28) Analyzing the incidents, Tijanić argued that Yugoslavia’s central authorities “grossly underestimated to what extent the idea of a Kosovo republic seems natural to most Albanians.” He urged his readers to understand what was happening in Kosovo in the early 1980s by considering the nationalist movements of the south Slavs in the nineteenth century.

Despite Tijanić’s appeal for understanding the demonstrations as part of a larger historical example of ethnicity and nationalism in the Balkans, the federal authorities branded the events of 1981 counterrevolutionary, and the Serbian party leadership characterized them as an ethnic threat that gave rise to a Serbian nationalist reaction. Serbian migration from Kosovo became the symbol of Serbian victimization by Kosovo Albanians.

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.


22) Vickers, Between Serb and Albanian, 197, cited in Pipa and Repishti, Studies on Kosova, 144.

23) For a more extensive discussion see Julie Mertus, Kosovo.

24) There was in fact a considerable difference of opinions on the policy toward Kosovo. Serbia’s leadership, often supported by high officials of Montenegro and Macedonia, often came into conflict with high officials of other republics as well as those of Vojvodina and Kosovo. This was especially the case in the 1980s. These disagreements, even conflicts, however, occurred within the narrow leadership circle, masked by a united front that regional leaderships presented to society. This is hardly surprising given the authoritarian nature of the regime.

25) Kjell Magnusson, “The Serbian Reaction: Kosovo and Ethnic Mobilization among the Serbs,” Nordic Journal of Soviet and East European Studies 4, no. 3 (1987): 10. According to one of our team leaders, the cited author confuses the alleged suppression of the expression of national feelings of Kosovo Albanians with the real or perceived fear of secessionism, widespread in the Yugoslav multinational leadership (not only among the Serbs). The leadership did not act principally against expressions of national feelings by Albanians. Kosovo’s institutions, political and cultural, remained intact, and previous high officials were replaced by Kosovo Albanians, not Serbs; expressions of nationalism outside institutions by members of Yugoslavia’s other ethnonational groups were also sanctioned, though less harshly than in post-1981 Kosovo. One should not confuse the rhetoric of the leadership (e.g., Albanian nationalism as counterrevolution, which was fully in line with the CPY ideology) with what they really feared—the rise of a mass-based separatist movement, that is, a major threat to the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. This fear may have been irrational (this can certainly be discussed further) but it did produce tangible political consequences.

26) “More than 300 Persons Were Sentenced,” New York Times, 19 October 1981, A4, cited in Mertus, 43.

27) Yugoslavia: Prisoners of Conscience (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1985), cited in Vickers, 224.

28) Aleksander Tijanić, “Koliko je oraha u kesi?” Duga, 18–31 October 1986, 28–31, cited in Magnusson, 11.

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14 Responses

  1. John

    I should note this book (“Confronting Yugoslav Controversies”) was a critically panned Soros funded apologia for Western policy in the region. A more accurate titlte would have been “Confirming Anti-Serb Propaganda”.

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