From Enver Hoxha to Bill Clinton

A brief history of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army turn over their weapons to US Marines in the village of Zegra, Kosovo, on June 30, 1999. US Department of Defense / Wikimedia

In February 1998, the Serbian province of Kosovo descended into civil war. For two years, the Albanian nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had conducted a low-level guerilla campaign against Serbian military police in the province. In response, Serbian forces gradually escalated their counterinsurgency efforts, targeting villages in remote rural regions and along the Albanian border.

As police raids, assaults, and executions against suspected KLA sympathizers increased, support for the once-marginal guerilla group grew.

By summer 1998, the KLA had begun an offensive to seize key territories, including the regions of Drenica, Dukagjin, and Malisheva. Militarily, the campaign was a disaster, and Serbian forces quickly retook the regions, driving KLA fighters across the border into Albania.

Politically, however, the KLA had won an important battle: the offensive forced the issue of Kosovo onto the international stage. This was a key step in the group’s long-term strategy, which envisioned Western intervention as the means of securing Kosovo’s independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The strategy bore fruit. In March 1999 in response to escalating hostilities, NATO forces initiated seventy-eight days of air-strikes against Serbia. The subsequent retreat of Serbian forces and occupation of the province by NATO and then UN troops opened the door to Kosovo’s outright independence in 2008.

That the KLA’s strategy should have relied on NATO’s intervention is no small irony. The KLA had its roots in an ardent strand of Marxist-Leninist politics that ran through Albanian national movements in the postwar era. Virulently critical of socialist Yugoslavia’s Cold War friendship with the West, Kosovo’s Marxist-Leninists had looked to Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania as a beacon of liberation.

How did an organization with such roots in Marxist-Leninist ideology find themselves calling for the expansion of NATO into the Balkans? To explain this curious turn, we need to consider Kosovo’s place in the shifting postwar international order.

A Bridge Too Far

For the communists that seized power in Yugoslavia following World War II, Kosovo posed a particular challenge.

As the heartland of the medieval Serbian kingdom, Kosovo had enormous symbolic and spiritual value in Serbian culture. However, by the time the province was annexed by the modern Kingdom of Serbia in 1912, Serbs had become a minority among Kosovo’s much larger Albanian population.

Following the war, Yugoslav communists were, therefore, asked to adjudicate between two rival nationalist claims to Kosovo — one based on Serbia’s historic ties to the region, the other rooted in Albanians’ right to national self-determination.

Initially, Yugoslav and Albanian communists believed the question would be resolved within a wider Balkan Communist Federation. Rather than a point of division and conflict, Kosovo would be a “bridge” bringing together the Albanian and Serbian communities.

Yugoslavia’s break with the Soviet Union in 1948, however, shut down this proposal. As Albania allied with Stalin against Tito, any plans for a Balkan Federation were abandoned. Kosovo remained formally designated as a “region” of Serbia, ruled directly from Belgrade. Far from a bridge, the Albanian population was now stigmatized as a fifth column in the Balkan Cold War.

Following the split, the Yugoslav leadership dismissed Kosovo Albanians’ demands for greater autonomy as irredentist plots hatched in Tirana or Moscow. Police surveillance and persecution of Albanians increased. More broadly, racism against Albanians as a “backwards” and “primitive” people permeated Yugoslav society and was often compounded by the poverty and underdevelopment from which the province suffered.

Within the Yugoslav political economy, Kosovo was integrated as an exporter of raw materials to the more economically advanced northern republics. Federal funds earmarked for economic development, therefore, prioritized the province’s extractive industries, especially coal mining. These industries, however, employed only a fraction of the workforce.

Agriculture, which employed roughly 80 percent of the population in the late 1950s, was left to stagnate. As a result, Kosovo became home to a growing rural underclass, excluded from the emerging institutions of Yugoslav socialism.

The Guiding Light of Hoxhaism

Police repression, poverty, and discrimination fueled nationalist resentment among Kosovo Albanians. Though Albanian national movements had opposed Belgrade’s rule since Kosovo’s annexation in 1912, Cold War politics in the Balkans shaped a new language of nationalism.

Following the Tito-Stalin split, Yugoslavia and Albania pursued different paths to socialism. Yugoslavia, desperate to secure its independence and economic development, sought entrance into the postwar liberal order. The Yugoslav model of “self-management socialism” facilitated integration into Western markets.

Under the rule of Enver Hoxha, Albania took a radically different path, siding first with the Soviet Union against Yugoslavia, and then with the Chinese against the Soviets ten years later. Hoxha’s regime remained committed to High Stalinist policies of centralized state control, a command economy, and agricultural collectivization. “Hoxhaism” became synonymous with an uncompromising Stalinism, contemptuous of the “revisionism” of Khrushchev and Tito.

The diverging paths taken by Tito’s Yugoslavia and Hoxha’s Albania shaped the ideological development of the Albanian national movement in Kosovo during the Cold War.

Opposition politics in Kosovo centered on the province’s status within the Yugoslav state. Since 1945, Kosovo had been assigned a semi-autonomous status within the Republic of Serbia. As tensions mounted with Soviet-aligned Albania, the Yugoslav leadership defended Belgrade’s rule over the province as the surest way of securing this vulnerable borderland. Kosovo Albanian activists, however, contended that Yugoslavia’s large Albanian population required its own republic to realize the cultural and economic development socialism promised.

Belgrade’s early dismissal of Albanian autonomy radicalized younger activists in Kosovo. By the early 1960s, thin networks of underground organizations began to stretch across the province. While most of these groups sought an Albanian republic within Yugoslavia, a minority began to voice an even more radical demand: outright independence and unification with the People’s Republic of Albania.

It was through these underground groups, such as the late Adem Demaçi’s Revolutionary Movement for the Union of Albanians, founded in 1963, that Hoxhaist political vocabulary began to circulate in Kosovo. Marxism-Leninism, in this context, was bound up with Albanian national aspirations.

This new political language differed sharply from the more conservative nationalist or religious politics that dominated Kosovo and the Albanian diaspora prior to World War II. Through the lens of Hoxhaism, the goal of national unification became infused with aspirations for revolutionary social transformation.

“This Is Real Communism”

From the late 1950s, the language and symbolism of Albanian Stalinism underpinned the more radical currents of Albanian nationalism in Kosovo. Hoxhaism’s appeal rested on its ability to serve multiple political aspirations. First, as the official ideology of the Albanian state, it was a surrogate for Albanian nationalism, facilitating the diaspora’s identification with the “motherland.” In this sense, it was less the nuances of Stalinist politics than the goal of national unification that lent Hoxhaism its appeal.

Second, as an ally of Mao’s China, Albania offered a seemingly more “authentic” communism than Yugoslav “revisionism.” Mary Motes, who worked as an English teacher in Priština in the 1960s, noted this appeal when she recorded a student’s admiration for the People’s Republic of Albania: “Power is gone from hoxhas and priests,” the student announced to the class. “Women are free …. The Albanian Workers Party has electrified the villages. No, there are no cars but Enver Hoxha does not have a car! That is real Communism!”

Set against 1960s global radicalism, some Kosovar youth idealized Albanian Stalinism as a vital and revolutionary alternative to Yugoslavia’s compromise with the Western powers.

Finally, the Sino-Albanian alliance fostered the spread of Maoist ideas into Kosovo and the Albanian diaspora. As part of a marginalized, rural underclass, young Albanian radicals in Kosovo found much to admire in Maoism’s vision of peasant insurrection and national liberation.

Despite its durability within radical political circles, however, Hoxhaism had a limited appeal among the broader Kosovo population. Outside of the far left, most Yugoslav Albanians were suspicious of Hoxha’s regime.

The limited détente that emerged between Belgrade and Tirana in the late 1960s granted Yugoslav Albanians greater opportunity to travel to Albania. The poverty and political repression they witnessed there served to dispel the illusions of all but the most ardent ideologues. Kosovo Albanians were particularly attuned to the brutality of Hoxha’s regime as many had strong family ties to the poorer north of Albania, where the population suffered intense state persecution.

Despite the anxieties of hard-liners within Yugoslav security institutions, therefore, Hoxhaism was a minor strand of the national movement in Kosovo. Its durability, however, ensured that it would go on to play a role disproportionate to its social appeal.

The Two Nationalisms

Starting in 1968, the Kosovo Albanian national movement began to bifurcate into two distinct camps: a moderate, “Yugoslav” wing and a more radical, “Hoxhaist” current. In November 1968, a protest of several thousand students in Priština sparked demonstrations across the province demanding Kosovo be granted republic status.

The Yugoslav state’s response was twofold: on the one hand, police violently put down the demonstrations; on the other, the federal leadership introduced a wave of reforms. These new policies defended the language and cultural rights of Albanians, mandated their promotion to positions of political leadership, and expanded provincial autonomy.

The peak of these reforms came with the 1974 constitution, which granted Kosovo de facto republic status. By the end of the 1970s, a layer of Kosovo Albanians had been integrated into the Yugoslav state bureaucracy and a local intelligentsia began to flourish in larger towns. This provided the base for the moderate wing of the Albanian national movement in Kosovo. Eschewing any ties to the People’s Republic of Albania, this local political class sought greater autonomy through deeper integration into Yugoslav institutions.

The 1970s political and cultural reforms, however, did little to tackle poverty in Kosovo. At the beginning of the 1980s, by all economic indicators Kosovo fell far behind the Yugoslav average, and the gap was growing. While the official unemployment rate in the province was 27.5 percent, real unemployment was much higher, being masked by high university enrollments, underemployment, and mass emigration.

Furthermore, the priority accorded to extractive industries continued to leave the large rural population almost untouched by state development programs.

The failure of the Kosovo leadership to resolve these economic problems provided fertile soil for the more radical, “Hoxhaist” current of the national movement. Throughout the 1970s, organizations such as the Revolutionary Group of Kosovo proliferated in the growing diaspora populations of Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. While still marginal within Kosovo itself, these groups also began to find an audience among the growing student population at the University of Priština.

For these radicals, the moderate leadership in the provincial government were little more than a comprador bourgeoisie, serving a Western-backed, colonial regime in Belgrade.

The tension between these two wings of the national movement in Kosovo erupted in spring 1981, when protests of college students again sparked waves of demonstrations across the province. Over several weeks tens of thousands of students, workers, farmers, and unemployed youths took to the streets to condemn the leadership and demand Kosovo be granted republic status.

Repression was swift and brutal, with the provincial government unleashing thousands of police and federal troops on the population. Kosovo came to resemble an occupied territory and between March 1981 and November 1988 an estimated 584,373 Albanians were arrested, interned, or interrogated.

The widespread repression offered the first real opportunity for the Hoxhaist groups to expand their influence. Over the early 1980s these dispersed and fragmented activists set out to unify in a broad popular front. Their efforts led to the founding of the Peoples’ Movement of Kosovo (LPK), the organization that would later form the core of the KLA.

An Apartheid State

The tensions between the two factions of the Albanian national movement in Kosovo emerged more starkly in the late 1980s, as Slobodan Milošević rose to power in Serbia and the Yugoslav federation began to fragment along national lines.

Milošević’s rise signaled a crisis for Kosovo’s political class. Mobilizing Serbian nationalism to propel himself to power, Milošević swore to “return Kosovo to Serbia.” Between 1987–1990 Kosovo’s extensive autonomy was dissolved, and state and party institutions were purged of most of their Albanian members. Albanians were dismissed en masse from Kosovo’s press, radio, and television and replaced with Serbs. The University of Priština was required to reduce its intake of Albanian students and increase quotas of Serbs and Montenegrins.

By the early 1990s Kosovo had effectively become an apartheid state. As the institutions of the provincial state hollowed out, the purged members of Kosovo’s political class were forced to regroup within a new organization: the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).

Founded in December 1989, the LDK quickly grew into a mass organization, claiming around 700,000 members worldwide by 1991 and declaring itself Kosovo’s “government in exile.” Under the leadership of writer Ibrahim Rugova, the LDK sought to win independence through a strategy of passive resistance, advocating nonengagement with Serbian institutions and the creation of Albanian-run parallel institutions. Nonviolence, Rugova reasoned, would help promote Western sympathy for and, eventually, foreign intervention on the side of Kosovo’s Albanians.

This strategy sustained a serious blow in 1995 when international negotiators seeking a peace in the Croatian and Bosnian civil wars refused to take up the cause of Kosovo. The Dayton Accords, which brought the Yugoslav wars to an end, left Kosovo firmly under Belgrade’s rule.

Our Friends in Washington

The twilight of the Democratic League of Kosovo signaled the rise of the more radical Peoples’ Movement of Kosovo. Since its formation in the early 1980s, the LPK had continued to pursue a militant path to Kosovo’s liberation. Activists in exile studied the military tactics of liberation groups such as ETA, the PLO, and the IRA. They also debated the appropriate form of armed struggle in Kosovo: should the party engage in prolonged guerilla war, or should it arm the local population for an intifada-like uprising?

The KLA was formed in 1993 as the armed wing of the Peoples’ Movement of Kosovo. Over the following years KLA activists successfully organized a network of contacts embedded in poor, rural communities across Kosovo and streamlined their fundraising operations in the diaspora.

The failure of the LDK’s pacifist strategy in 1995 created the space for the KLA to move out of the political margins. In 1996 the group put out its first public communiques and began a campaign of attacks on Serbian police and perceived Albanian “collaborators.”

Although its roots lay in the LPK’s Marxism-Leninism, the KLA that emerged in 1996 was a profoundly different political beast than its Cold War precursors.

The most obvious difference was the KLA’s relationship to the Western powers. As Henry Perritt notes, few in the KLA believed armed force alone could liberate Kosovo. Rather, the guerilla campaign was intended to complement a broader political strategy of provoking Western intervention in Kosovo to support Albanian self-determination.

Having spent decades condemning Tito’s government as the revisionist “lackeys” of Western imperialism, KLA radicals now looked to these same imperialists as their ultimate saviors.

Several factors explain this ideological about-face. First, the strategy of the popular front, to which the majority of Kosovo’s Hoxhaist groups turned following 1981, prioritized the struggle for national liberation over socialist revolution.

The struggle of a rural underclass against an urban political class gave rise to that nebulous political subject: “the people.” This ideological slippage facilitated the KLA’s adoption of an Albanian nationalism largely shed of its class politics.

Second, the collapse of communism in Albania in 1992 exposed the brutal nature of the Hoxhaist state more clearly, especially among the diaspora. Reliant on this diaspora for funding, the LPK jettisoned much of its Marxist-Leninist rhetoric.

Third, the end of communism transformed the geopolitics of the Balkans. During the Cold War, Yugoslavia’s alliance with the West had allowed Hoxhaist activists in Kosovo to identify “Serbian colonialism” in Kosovo with Western imperialism in the region. The civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia, however, had demonstrated just how alienated Milošević’s rump Yugoslavia was from the West.

As US political strategists sought to repurpose NATO as an international security force, the Yugoslav crisis offered a convenient testing ground for a new paradigm of “humanitarian intervention.”

Attentive to the possibilities this new geopolitical moment had opened, the KLA leadership began to detach the problem of Serbian colonialism from that of Western imperialism, eventually muting criticism of the latter altogether.

By the mid-1990s, the KLA retained little of the Marxist-Leninist politics that had characterized Kosovo Albanian radicalism during the Cold War. The path to liberation, they now believed, ran through Washington.

A Radical Narrowing

NATO intervention did help secure the conditions for Kosovo to unilaterally declare independence from Serbia in 2008. Nonetheless, the ideological transformation of the KLA had a number of consequences for Kosovo politics.

First, it contributed to a turn to a chauvinist nationalism. Though Hoxhaism had always been bound up with Albanian nationalism in Kosovo, it retained an internationalist spirit. Hoxhaists emphasized their solidarity with other peoples of the Balkans and ultimately believed in a future regional federation. As late as 1997, the old Marxist-Leninist Adem Demaçi still proposed a federation of Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo — “Balkania” — to resolve the escalating conflict.

This internationalism was jettisoned from the KLA’s later ideology, and within its ranks more ardently chauvinist strands of Albanian nationalism were allowed to grow, often with violent consequences for Serb and Roma minorities after the war.

Second, the shedding of class politics helped to smooth the way for the KLA’s ascent as part of the new ruling class.

Following the retreat of Serbian forces in June 1999, Kosovo was placed under a United Nations administration, which supervised the creation of provisional institutions of government. The KLA leadership were quick to leverage their newfound popular support and effective monopoly on violence to secure powerful and lucrative positions within these institutions. As the core of the new political class, former KLA leaders behaved much like their predecessors, using state institutions to enrich themselves, accumulate power, and settle scores.

In addition, the close ties former KLA fostered with international administrators, meant that this political class was bound up in the failure of the UN institutions to realize meaningful development of the small, war-ravaged state. It is telling that resistance to the UN occupation of Kosovo came not from former KLA, but rather from the anti-colonial Vetëvendosje! (Self-determination) movement, whose leadership grew from 1990s mass student protests.

Finally, the KLA’s reliance on the intervention of Western powers provided legitimacy to the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” and the new security paradigm US strategists developed to repurpose NATO. In this sense, we need to consider the Kosovo War a significant step on the road to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq two years later.

That the KLA’s leadership should not have considered the broader repercussions of their alliance with the West testifies to the radical narrowing of their political worldview.