One of the foremost practitioners of pacifism and nonviolence of our era died this week little noticed in this country. Ibrahim Rugova was known as the “Albanian Gandhi” or the “Gandhi of the Balkans” as a respectful acknowledgment of his pacifist tactics. He died on January 21 as the head of state of Kosovo and the most prominent public figure in the nation. In spite of several setbacks, he never lost the affection of his people.
The son of a shopkeeper killed by Titoites in the mid-1940s, Rugova started his public career as the head of the Kosovo Writers’ Association in the former Yugoslavia.
A French-educated expert on Pjeter Bogdani, a seventeenth-century Albanian Catholic author, Rugova soon became more and more prominent, especially since he was one of the first persons to ask for the independence of Kosovo. On December 23, 1989, a group was founded that would dominate Kosovar politics for the next decade. Its name was the Democratic League of Kosovo. For the post of president, the group went outside its organization and asked Rugova, already well known for his work with the global literary group, International PEN.
Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic took away Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989 in a series of swift steps, and effectively barred Kosovar Albanians from government services and employment. Here is where Rugova and civil resistance came in, with Rugova saying that the Kosovars would embark on the path of nonviolence and civil disobedience to attract international backing and “because to do otherwise would have disastrous consequences for our people.”
The Albanian response in the face of repression was quite remarkable. “Without resort to violence—which all among them then viewed as a suicidal option—they had organized and maintained a free or liberated zone such as revolutionaries and reformers of the past, worldwide, had long dreamed,” Stephen Schwartz writes. “Unfortunately, these fine points of political science were largely ignored by the rest of the globe.”
Two separate and parallel societies were set up in Kosovo. This endeavor extended from education and health to the sports and the cultural realm.
Rugova said that nonviolence was “a necessity and a choice.” “The practice of nonviolence in this situation corresponds to an aspect of our character, to a tradition of patience and prudence in the face of all domination,” he stated. “By means of this active resistance based on nonviolence and solidarity, we ‘found’ ourselves.”
As part of the civil resistance campaign, the Albanians set about reforming destructive social practices. Among the chief ones was the practice of blood feuds, some of which went back generations. Between 1990 and 1992, the reformers resolved about 1,000 such feuds.
The desire of the Kosovars to integrate more closely with Europe worked in Rugova’s favor. This desire was so strong that in 1990 some Kosovar Albanians even discussed mass conversions to Catholicism, which they rejected because it would seem too artificial. But they repeatedly rallied around Catholic symbols like Mother Teresa (who was of Albanian origin), observing Catholic holy days and ceremonies, and forming a Christian Democratic Party with a majority Muslim membership—all this to disprove the charge of Islamic fundamentalism often placed on them by the Serbs. “We have learned that nonviolence is the modern European preference,” Rugova said.
Rugova was heavily invested in symbolism, not surprising for someone who studied semiotics and literary history with Roland Barthes in France. He believed that the whole parallel enterprise was symbolically and actually undermining Serb power. But his analysis was overly optimistic. People invested a lot of hopes in him and his ability to get countries like the United States to take notice. But his strategy was not well thought out, and the international community was indifferent. The Kosovo parliament did not function after being elected. And the parallel school system became more decrepit over time.In some ways, Rugova’s approach ironically hindered international recognition because, in spite of increasing American and European awareness of the deteriorating human rights situation in the province, their attention became focused on the much more violent dissolution in republics such as Croatia and Bosnia. The West also feared that recognizing Kosovo’s independence would encourage Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia to secede, and argued that the Kosovar Albanians did not control their own territory. It was interested only in “stability” and maintaining the status quo in Serbia, at least partly so that it could send back refugees from the area.
The Dayton agreements in 1995 solidified Milosevic’s position internationally, and they completely ignored the situation in Kosovo.
Almost as a response, the Kosovo Liberation Army sprung up to challenge Rugova’s approach. Unfortunately for Rugova, the focus of the international community on the Kosovo question seemed to proportionately increase with the amount of violence in the region.
Even though Rugova was present at the 1999 Rambouillet conference in France to decide the future of Kosovo, and accepted the terms of the accords, the course of future events already seemed clear. NATO military action was in the offing, which came about in the spring of 1999.
One of the most embarrassing episodes of Rugova’s career took place shortly after the start of the war. He was placed under house arrest, and was shown on television having tea with Milosevic and discussing “peace.” After some negotiation, Rugova was released to the Italians. Rugova was supposedly derided as an unpopular figure in the West for his television appearance. But he returned after the war with his popularity retained. Kosovars preferred his naïveté to the crookedness of others.
Rugova continued until his death to command allegiance among the Kosovar population. In 2002, the Kosovar Parliament elected Rugova the president of Kosovo. The BBC writes that in spite of all his missteps, two things stood him in good stead. First, he was seen as someone who had been dedicated to the independence struggle for a long time. Second, the Kosovar people perceived him to be cut from a different cloth than his opponents. His popularity didn’t stop him, however, from being the target of a grenade attack in March 2004, which Rugova escaped unhurt.
A burst of violence let loose in March 2004 against the Serbs for their alleged killing of two Albanian youths did much to damage Kosovo’s and Rugova’s reputation and brought back memories of the massive anti-Serb campaign immediately after the end of the NATO bombardment. At least 28 people died, and an estimated 4,000 Serbs and Gypsies were driven away, with 41 Serb Orthodox churches and monasteries being attacked in the frenzy. Although the Kosovo prime minister termed the violence a “disaster,” the government, including Rugova, seemed unwilling or unable to stop the pogrom.
The Rugova saga is a mixed one. Due to several slip-ups and the lack of international support, he was not able to realize the full potential of his nonviolent strategy, nor was he able to reach out to his adversaries in a Gandhi-like manner. The fact, however, that he managed to sustain a nonviolent campaign for years in extremely difficult circumstances is by itself no mean achievement. Even with all his flaws of personality and tactics, the Rugova path was surely preferable to that of most other leaders in the Balkans, past and present. For this, Rugova’s embrace, no matter how half-hearted, of the Gandhian approach needs to be praised. The “Gandhi of the Balkans” showed that a program of peaceful civil disobedience can be put into practice even in very challenging situations. He deserves to be globally recognized.