Ibrahim Rugova: Non-violent Actions in Violent Kosovo

As Rugova had written recently, nearly seven years "after NATO went to war to stop wide-spread human rights abuses in Kosovo, an interim United Nations mission still administers the province alongside its democratically elected government, while troops from more than 30 countries provide security.  And despite continuing difficulties, success is in sight."  Success is a relative term, but for a man who knew that he was dying and who had been the moral and political leader of the Kosovo Albanians since the early 1980s, he had seen vast changes, even as he deplored the use of violence such as the NATO air offensive against Serbia which brought about some of the changes.  At the peak of the 79 days of NATO bombing which lasted from 24 March 1999 until 10 June, Rugova went to see Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrad on the possibility of a negotiated settlement.  The photos of the two men in animated conversation were sent around the world and were considered as a form of treason by some Albanians in Kosovo (sometimes called Kosovars).

Ibrahim Rugova considered himself as a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and was often called the ‘Albanian or Balkan Gandhi’. He advocated non-violent action and self-reliant economic development.  Like Gandhi, he tried to keep lines of communication open to the colonial overlords – thus the visit to Milosevic.  Like Gandhi, he had many followers who approved of his aims but who were not deeply convinced of the value of non-violent methods. Like Gandhi, there was a violent section of his own people who wanted to kill him to prove that violence was the only road to independence.

The violent fringe became the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) which started in 1996 to kill Serb administrators in Kosovo and Albanian civil servants as ‘collaborators’ in the hope that such provocation would lead to strong Serb repression which in turn would provoke external aid to independence.  This policy bore fruit in 1999.  There were wide-spread rumours in the late 1990s that the KLA was plotting to kill Rugova, and recently he narrowly escaped being killed when the car in which he was riding was badly damaged in an armed attack.

Conditions in Kosovo in the 1980s brought two men to power who by training and previous experience were most unlikely to hold such posts: Both became symbols of nationalism: Slobodan Milosevic and Ibrahim Rugova.  Milosevic was by training a banker who had spent a good number of years in the USA working for a Yugoslav bank.  He was a communist technocrat with little interest in Serb history or culture.  Rugova was a professor of literature at the University of Pristina.  He was interested in European literature with a focus on French authors – a ‘European’ by education and sentiment.

After the death of Tito in 1980, tensions between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo grew stronger – nearly 90 percent of the population being Albanian, but Kosovo is considered the original ‘homeland’ of the Serbs and a landmark of mytho-legendary significance.  Under the 1974 Yugoslav constitution, the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo was a ‘constituent part’ of the Republic of Serbia.  In practice, Kosovo was largely autonomous but some wanted to have the same status as Serbia as an independent republic within the Yugoslav Federation.

By 1981, Kosovars began agitation to become a full republic within the Yugoslav Federation.  This agitation was considered dangerous by Serbs and was countered by strong police measures. In 1983 there were wide-spread protests followed by massive arrests.

Milosevic was too young to play a leadership role in Yugoslav politics, being only 46 in 1986 and his technocratic suggestions for economic management had little popular appeal.
Nearly by accident, Milosevic found in the Kosovo issue and the defense of the Serb minority living there an issue which stirred many Serbs.  He took on the role of Serbian nationalist and finally brought the country to economic ruin despite his real competence in economic mattes.

Likewise, Rugova had to focus upon the defense of Albanians and their culture in Kosovo.  He first concentrated on overcoming the family and clanic divisions which weakened Albanian society from within.  He helped to organize large ceremonies where family heads were able to renounce their antagonisms toward other families and to forgive past wrongs.

By 1990, the Serb-Kosovar antagonism reached the breaking point.  The Kosovars declared independence – which no country recognized.  The Serbian government fired a large number of Albanians working in the Kosovo administration as potential enemies. At this time, Rugova followed the inspiration of Gandhi and the Congress Party of India and created a parallel administration and society.

Rugova helped set up a parallel Albanian school system from primary through university, meeting in homes and barns. All the institutions of Kosovo largely stopped  as the Albanians created their own parallel administration.  The ‘real government’ was the parallel government, and in 1992 Rugova was elected president in parallel state elections.

The most difficult was to create a parallel economy for an area that was largely rural and one of the poorest in Yugoslavia.  Many young Kosovars left the country to work abroad in Europe and sent money home.  The drug traffic and prostitution became Kosovar specialties – not exactly a Gandhian model.

Unfortunately, Rugova’s Gandhian efforts were not supported by European governments or even powerful NGOs as attention was focused on the fighting in other parts of Yugoslavia.  The Kosovars had hoped that their non-violent efforts would be recognized in the 1995 Dayton accord which tried to bring an end to the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina. When the Kosovo situation was totally ignored at Dayton, fringe groups which advocated violence grew stronger.  Many of Rugova’s followers were not ethically wedded to non-violence and were willing to support violence ‘if it would work better’.  Also, like Gandhi, Rugova had no strong successor as a champion of non-violence as well as a leader of the people.

The constitutional, economic and political issues of final status negotiations are complex and are likely to prove difficult.  Without the non-violent philosophy of Rugova, there will be a gap of moderate voices seeking reconciliation.  The action and philosophy of Rugova merit to be better known outside Kosovo.  Perhaps his spirit can continue to inspire the negotiations.


Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva.

For a good account of Rugova and his efforts by a non-violent activist see
Howard Clark. Civil Resistance in Kosovo (London: Pluto Press, 2000, 288pp.)