Saturday, August 13, 2005

What is the KLA 1999

What is the KLA?

By Michael Karadjis

April 1999

Part of the Kosova Liberation Army's core derives from "Marxist-Leninist" Kosovar resistance forces which fought Belgrade's repressive rule in the 1980s, and had links with Albania's Stalinist regime. In particular, it appears to have connections with the National Movement of Kosova, which was formed in 1982.

Its sudden fame in the latter part of 1997 was due to the liberation of hundreds of thousands of weapons in Albania during the revolutionary uprising earlier that year. Many of these weapons found their way across the border to Kosova and were eagerly snatched up by Albanians in the villages living under the brutal decade-long military repression of the "Yugoslav" army and Serbian paramilitaries.

Volunteers, arms and money have also come from the 600,000 Albanians working in Germany and Switzerland. Among those leading the resistance are many former officers of the old Yugoslav People's Army and Kosovar Territorial Defence Forces, from the period previous to 1989.

Strategy Debates

Among the Kosovar political leadership in Pristina, frustration had been growing with the seven-year "Ghandian" strategy implemented by the Kosova League for Democracy, headed by Ibrahim Rugova. While the system of "parallel institutions" was providing Albanians with basic services denied them by the Serb state, the feeling was growing that this policy only perpetuated Serbia's apartheid policies, paid for by double-taxing the Albanian masses. The strategy, which aimed to attract Western support through showing moderation, had been a complete failure: Western leaders never even mentioned the restoration of Kosova's autonomy, illegally abolished by Milosevic in 1989, let alone the universal Kosovar goal of independence.

By 1996, a section of the political leadership, headed by Adem Demaqi, who had spent 28 years in a Serbian prison, began agitating for a change of strategy. For Demaqi and his Kosova Parliamentary Party, engagement with genuine Serbian opposition forces was more important than the hopeless goal of attracting Western attention.This was handicapped by the fact that the major bourgeois Serbian opposition forces had a line on Kosova either identical to, or more extreme than, Milosevic's.

However, in a 1997 "Serbian-Albanian dialogue" organised by the Serbian Helsinki Human Rights Committee, considerable support among anti-nationalist Serbs was expressed for Demaqi's idea that a Republic of Kosova, on gaining self-determination, could enter into a new and equal federation with Serbia and Montenegro. He called this concept "Balkanija".This was a way of appealing to a lingering nostalgia for long-defunct Yugoslavia among many non-nationalist Serbs.

According to Demaqi, "The same mechanism which keeps by sheer violence both Albanians and other peoples in captivity, has been hindering democratisation in Serbia for 100 years".The Milosevic regime, the Serbian bourgeois opposition, and Western governments all ignored these ideas.

By mid-1998, the KLA had appointed Demaqi's party as its political leadership, in opposition to the Rugova line. Branches of his party throughout Kosova merged with the KLA. While coming from varied backgrounds, these forces had in common the view that Kosovars needed to rely on their own forces.

Whether the KLA had the strength to take on Milosevic's terror machine in early 1998 will need closer examination. It appears that the necessary level of overall command was not there, different sections often operating their own agendas. There is little doubt, however, that it corresponded to the feelings of the mass of Kosovars at the time, and thousands of villagers joined in order to exercise the right of self-protection from the police and army. "There is no doubt that these groups have the full support of the local population", according to Albanian journalist Fehim Rexhepi.

By mid-1998, the KLA had taken control of substantial sections of central Kosova. However, without a growing supply of arms, many of these gains were rolled back by the occupation forces by October.

The US reacted with hostility to the appearance of the KLA. "Moslem aid for Albanians a threat to peace" headlined the Sydney Morning Herald, quoting senior US advisers, fearful this could turn the KLA into "a more dangerous military force". It was even reported that Osama Bin Laden was operating in the region!Early in the offensive, US State Department spokesperson James Foley claimed the increased presence of the Serbian army on the Albanian border was "legal and legitimate," while Richard Holbrooke spoke of his fears of a "Ho Chi Minh Trail" for arms from Albania to Kosova. In Pristina, US special envoy Robert Gelbard called the KLA “without any question a terrorist organisation".

US plan

Following the Serbian victories, the US presented a plan for limited autonomy, which was rejected by the KLA as "not even worth discussing". It fell short even of the level of autonomy Kosova had enjoyed in Tito's Yugoslavia.In early 1999, the US relaunched its efforts to force the Kosovars to accept the plan.

Given the Albanians' natural disbelief that they could feel secure within Serbia, without their own armed forces and with the KLA disarmed, the US now offered a NATO "peacekeeping force" to police the deal. For its part, the KLA would be required to drop its long-standing goal of independence and accept the kind of low-level “autonomy” the US was offering.

Demaqi and others pressured the Kosovar delegation to reject this attempt to "convince Albanians to accept capitulation, by launching illusions and empty promises". Both the KLA and Serbia rejected the Rambouillet principles.

However, under massive pressure from pro-Western Albanian forces, the leading wing of the KLA finally capitulated. Demaqi resigned from the leadership.Many media reports have claimed that NATO has "in effect" intervened on the side of the KLA. This turns reality on its head. The KLA's total capitulation - dropping its demand for self-determination and agreeing to disarm its forces - was demanded by NATO as a condition for "helping" Albanians against Milosevic.

The demand for a NATO force, however, allowed Milosevic to pretend to accept autonomy while rejecting a foreign intervention force on "his" territory. This rejection allowed NATO to attack Yugoslavia, creating the political and military conditions for Serbia to smash the KLA while carrying out the dream of only the most radical Serb nationalists: the emptying of Kosova of half its Albanian population.

The "illusions" Demaqi spoke of led to catastrophe for the KLA and for Kosova. As KLA soldier Shrem Dragobia told Albanian journalist Fron Nazi, NATO had betrayed the Kosovars. "When we signed the Rambouillet agreement, we were led to believe that NATO and the US will help the Albanians. So we stopped arming and mobilising ourselves."The KLA was pressured to reduce its military activities, in preparation for full disarmament under the agreement's provisions. "At all costs, they were told, the KLA was not to take advantage of any NATO action to embark on an offensive of their own." The KLA kept its word, but "NATO has failed to keep its part of the besa", an Albanian word for a sworn vow. Now, according to Dragobia, if NATO cannot defend the Kosovar victims of genocide, "then our wish is that they leave us alone to resolve our own problems. We're convinced we can handle the Serbs by ourselves", provided they can get the necessary arms.


Many who oppose both NATO's aggression and Serbia's genocide against the Kosovars have balked at the demand to arm the KLA as an alternative. This opposition stems from the view that the KLA is an ultranationalist, anti-Serb organisation, and that it attacks the Serb civilian population.

The KLA's political declarations, however, give no evidence of ultranationalism. It calls for an "independent, democratic Kosova". If the demand for independence, and the rejection of "any short term solution that may leave Kosova under or within Serbia" are "ultranationalist", then so are Fretilin and most other national liberation movements. Indeed, its surrender on the issue of accepting the US-pushed autonomy within Serbia makes it absurd to continue to call the KLA ultranationalist.

However, the KLA makes no mention of the Serb minority, except to say that it is in the interests of "peace in the Balkans, for both the Serbs and the Albanians", for the occupation of Kosova to end. While wild claims in the media that it aims to drive out Serbs are based on nothing but the reporters' imaginations, this omission certainly is a political drawback and helps the propaganda of the Serb chauvinists.

In general, the KLA expresses little in the way of ideology, claiming last September, "We do not fight for party or political interests, as do the political parties in Kosova and Albania". This reflects a "militaristic" tendency to reject political struggle, identifying the failed politics of Rugova with politics in general.

However, the KLA had already adopted the political leadership of Demaqi's group, an important step forward. Demaqi demanded that the KLA accept his "Balkanija" project, which by definition meant negotiation with anti-nationalist Serbs. Demaqi stressed, "Those who are fighting should realise that freedom cannot be won only by arms, just as we have seen that it cannot be won by politics alone".

In practice, under Demaqi's leadership, political struggle was engaged in, particularly during the period of "self-restraint" from October to January under the auspices of the Kosovo Verification Mission. During this time, the KLA ended attacks on the Serb military, allowing a considerable consolidation of Serb positions.

Notably, it was the more "moderate" Demaqi faction – “moderate” in the sense of emphasising a mixture of political and military action - which rejected capitulation on autonomy, while the more "militaristic" wing accepted it - revealing the limitations of military struggle without clear ideology.

The KLA's targets have overwhelmingly been the armed forces of the Serbian occupation regime. Most of its non-military targets have not been Serbs, but Albanians it accuses of "collaborating". However, there have also been Serb civilian victims, whether the attackers were KLA or not. The KLA denies any involvement in attacks on civilians, but in conditions of war, of years of oppression, of massive ethnic cleansing and a general atmosphere of complete lawlessness as regards Albanian rights and the actions of the Serb occupation forces, it is inevitable that in some areas, resentful Albanians, without the power to fight the occupation authorities, have taken action against easier targets.The numbers, however, appear to be in the tens, compared to the 2000 Albanians killed over the last year.

When arms arrived from Albania in 1997, some were obtained by organised criminals, who have terrorised local Albanians and Serbs alike, especially in border areas. Locals believe that in conditions where the Serbian police control everything, these criminal rackets had police connivance.The conditions of war have certainly affected Serbs, and many have left areas of heavy fighting or heavy Albanian concentration, though we are talking about several hundreds, as opposed to the 200,000 expelled Albanians even before the latest attacks began.

Following years of illegal abductions and disappearances of Albanians, many Serbs have over the last year also been abducted by armed men. The main purpose seems to have been for exchange of hostages. The KLA claims to have released all its abductees, though many remain missing.

In late August, Serb authorities purported to have found a mass grave of 22 Serbs in the village of Klecka, after it was conquered by the army. The remains were completely charred, making it impossible to tell the nationality of the corpses, and the only "witnesses" were two Albanians who appeared with contradictory confessions on state television.The KLA's Barhyl Mahmuti said that "the KLA has never killed Serb civilians" and declared the two Albanians to be "collaborationists and smugglers" who had never been members of the KLA. It later turned out they had been arrested by Serb police a month earlier, on theft charges.

The KLA has repeatedly called for this and all other crimes to be investigated by international experts. "If these crimes were committed by the Liberating Army of Kosova, then why did the Belgrade regime refuse a visa to the specialist international organisations?", asked the KLA in its Eighth Political Declaration.

While every attack on civilians is to be condemned, there is precious little evidence of the alleged crimes of the KLA. What needs to be addressed is whether or not the Kosovar people, under brutal attack from the Serb occupation forces, have the right to armed self-defence. Given arms, the thousands of villages now being emptied and burned would have had a chance to resist their paramilitary attackers.

While condemning any counter-attacks on civilians that the KLA or other Albanians may have committed, do we have the luxury of demanding a liberation army in such incredible circumstances pass the full democratic test before we give it basic support for their current fight to defend their people’s very right to exist?

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