The role of Albanians in the fall of Communism and disintegration of the Former Yugoslavia - By Jusuf Buxhovi

(Lecture at the Center for International Studies, Texas State University, San Marcos, March 28, 2016)

The fall of communism in the late 1980s and the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s present the end of a failed historic process. The model of an ideological state failed and Yugoslavia, as an ideological state that had existed for half a century, fell apart.

When we speak of the ideological state, we speak of communist Yugoslavia. It is also known as the Second Yugoslavia and followed the First Yugoslavia, which was a monarchy in existence before World War II. The Second Yugoslavia was established in 1943, with Josip Broz Tito as its leader. It chose communism as its ideology and a federal system of government modeled after the Soviet Union. Thus, the Second Yugoslavia started out in the eastern bloc and consisted of republics and provinces, just like the Soviet Union.

But the Soviet model of the ideological state did not last too long in Yugoslavia. In 1948, Tito, the Yugoslav leader, had a falling out with Stalin, the Soviet leader. The Yugoslav Communist Party was expelled from Cominform (Comintrna), the international bloc of communist parties. And from 1949 onward, Yugoslavia built its own “authentic decentralized socialism.” This was a more liberal ideology and became particularly powerful with the 1960s when Tito had his main opponent, Ranković, expelled from the party. Ranković and his followers reflected the old Stalinist ideology and removing them from influential positions opened the way for further reforms. Yugoslavia decentralized its power and became a more authentic federation.

Yugoslavia was made up of six republics belonging to so-called constituent nations; but within those republics there was a large indigenous Albanian population which had the status of an ethnic minority. Albanians lived in three Yugoslav republics: in the Republic of Serbia (mostly in what was then the autonomous region of Kosovo), in the Republic of Macedonia, and in the Republic of Montenegro.

But the Albanians were included within communist Yugoslavia against their wishes. When the Second Yugoslavia was formed in 1943, its constituent nations, the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, and Bosnians — evoked their right to self-determination. Exercising that right to self-determination, they formed the federation of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The people of Kosovo, on the other hand, Albanians and non-Albanians, held a separate conference at the turn of the year (1943–1944) and voted that Kosovo be part of Albania. When World War II ended, Yugoslavia simply annexed Kosovo by force.

This annexation was made possible by the communist victory in World War II. Communists now controlled Yugoslavia and Albania. On March 8, 1944, Tito put Kosovo under military rule with the pretext that a “counterrevolution” was taking place. In July 1945 the communists called a new conference to decide the fate of Kosovo. The delegates, at the threat of arms, decided, “of free will to unite with federated Serbia.”

Thus, Kosovo was made a region within Serbia and Serbia joined the Yugoslav federation as a republic. One must note that Kosovo's annexation into Serbia was done with the approval of the communist leaders of Albania who cooperated closely with Tito until 1948.

The takeover was violent. Yugoslav partisans carried out grave atrocities against Albanians in Kosovo and other areas incorporated into Yugoslavia. The death toll was 50,000 ethnic Albanians out of a population of about a million. Initially the communists used the label of “counterrevolution” to fight the Albanian patriotic forces that resisted the invasion of Yugoslav and Albanian partisans following the withdrawal of German troops. The Albanian resistance was violently crushed by four military Yugoslav divisions, most of which were made up of Serbian ultranationalist fighters, Chetniks, who had later joined with the partisans. Two partisan divisions from Albania also helped the Yugoslavs put down the local resistance in Kosovo.

The communist atrocities against the Albanian population in Kosovo continued even with the so-called “mobilization of Albanians.” Some 15,000 untrained men were forcibly conscripted into partisan ranks and sent to fight against the Germans in other parts of Yugoslavia. None of the 15,000 recruits returned. Another massacre was that of Tivar in April 1945. Over 3,500 young Albanians were forcibly mobilized and sent to fight the Nazis along the Adriatic Sea. Most of them were lined up and shot by Montenegro's Fourth Brigade. Yugoslav communists later admitted to the massacres, but insisted that they were a “mistake” or a “misunderstanding” that occurred during the transportation of the victims.

The violent crackdown on the anti-communist resistance in Kosovo was followed by a brutal dictatorship. Just as the First Yugoslavia had done before World War II, the communist regime sought to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of Albanians by expelling or assimilating them. The Albanians never accepted communism nor did they identify with its motto of “brotherhood and unity” of communist propaganda. The communist regime at this point began a series of social and cultural reforms as part of an “ideological emancipation” package for ethnic minorities but the Albanians were barely granted the right of primary education in their native tongue. Even newspaper articles were also translated from the official language, i.e., Serbo-Croatian, into Albanian.

Under such circumstances the armed anti-communist resistance which was quelled in 1945 was replaced by a secret resistance that sought unification with Albania (This resistance was called an irredentist movement, meaning that it sought to redeem the lands that remained outside of Albania.) but it was a revolutionary movement based on a leftist ideology and it became more prominent in 1949 and onward after Tito split up with the Soviet Union. The Albanian communist leader, Enver Hoxha, remained close to Moscow and hoped to serve Soviet interests against Yugoslavia. He sought to use Albanian irredentists in Kosovo and Yugoslav communists who still sympathized with Stalin to overthrow Tito and replace him with a pro-Soviet leader.

Albanian irredentism in Kosovo remained active more or less until 1966 when Tito finally defeated his opponent, Ranković, who supported a centralized state. Ranković had Moscow's support and hoped to oust Tito and return Yugoslavia to the eastern bloc. Tito, on the other hand, insisted on independence and decentralization. Economically he favored workers' self-management. He followed his own international agenda and became the leader of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement. (This movement was a group of countries that were neither U.S. nor Soviet allies, and included nations such India, Egypt, and Venezuela.)

With Ranković out of the scene, Albanians in Kosovo sought to achieve their rights within Yugoslavia. In November 1968 Albanian student demonstrations broke out demanding that Kosovo be made a republic of the Yugoslav federation. Until then Albanians had sought to unify with Albania through a revolutionary struggle. Now they demanded changes within the Yugoslav system. Along with the demands for a republic of Kosovo there were also calls for an Albanian republic in Yugoslavia. This republic would include Albanian-inhabited territories that were then part of three existing republics (Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro).

Tito turned down the Albanian demands for a republic of Kosovo. However, the Yugoslav constitution was amended in 1968 and Kosovo was made a federal unit of Yugoslavia. Kosovo remained part of Serbia as an autonomous province but it gained its own voice in the federal government. The constitutional amendments raised the status of Albanians from an ethnic minority to that of a nationality. As a nationality they were still not considered a constituent nation of Yugoslavia but (Albanians) gained the right to use their national symbols and establish institutions of higher education in their own language.

In 1970 a university was founded in Kosovo. Many other important education and cultural institutions were also opened during that time. The improvements were reinforced in 1974 when a new Yugoslav constitution increased Kosovo's autonomy and influence in the federal government. Kosovo was made practically equal to other federal units. This did not resonate well with nationalists in Serbia who wanted to centralize power. They criticized the constitution as Tito's plot to weaken Serbia vis-à-vis other Yugoslav republics such as Croatia and Slovenia.

Even Yugoslavia's tragic disintegration is linked with Kosovo. In March 1981 demonstrations broke out as Albanians demanded the republic of Kosovo. At the insistence of Serb nationalists the demonstrations were declared a “counterrevolutionary event.” The Yugoslav authorities used police and military force to brutally crack down on demonstrators. As a result the Kosovo crisis became a catalyst of two parallel processes: on the one hand, ultranationalists rose to prominence in Serbia; on the other hand, non-Serb republics—Croatia and Slovenia—opposed Serbian domination and sought to break away from Yugoslavia. This whole process became irreversible on March 23, 1989 when Serbia used force to practically revoke Kosovo's autonomy and turn the Yugoslav federation into a greater Serbia.

The violent repression of Kosovo's autonomy led to the inevitable disintegration of Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia both declared their independence from Yugoslavia on the basis of the right to self-determination which was recognized in the federal constitution.

Serbia's leader, Milošević, who virtually controlled the federal government, responded by using the Yugoslav military against the two republics. In May 1991 war broke out in Slovenia and soon afterwards in Croatia. In Croatia, Milošević instigated ethnic Serbs to gain control of parts of the country. Serb nationalists, therefore, formed the Serbian Republic of Krajina, which controlled about a third of Croatia's territory.

In August 1991, an international conference at the Hague recognized the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Soon after, another republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, declared its independence. Milošević again used the Yugoslav military against the breakaway republic.

Since Kosovo was not formally a republic, the Hague Conference treated it as virtually part of Serbia. Kosovo Albanians did not agree with this treatment and they worked on creating their own independent state.

©Jusuf Buxhovi