This is a substantially extended version of an article about the conference BalkanAgenda that took place on 3/4 September 1999 in Zurich, which was published on 22 September 1999 in Jungle World (in German language): <>. This (German-language) version is for publication in Diskus No. 3/99 <> and com.une.farce No. 3 <>.

Kosov@ – Contradictions and Subjectivities

An invitation to take a close look and let yourself be irritated

by Alain Kessi, Sofia

In the discussion around the Nato bombings of Yugoslavia, one consideration was mostly absent – the subjectivity of Kosov@ Albanians was almost not perceived, since it was not immediately available and, perhaps the essential point, since it was more difficult to integrate into a traditional radical leftist conception of the world than those Yugoslav comrades who have been protesting both against Milosevic’s politics and against the Nato bombings, and who often share with Western European activists at least parts of a radical leftist conception of history. Not only have contacts with anarchist and antimilitarist circles in Serbia, Croatia and other regions of the former Yugoslavia for a long time been significantly more developed than with similar groups in Kosov@ – if such groups exist at all. For those Western European activists who attempted to get such a communication going during the war, the failure of all internet connections to Kosov@ had as an effect that first-hand information and subjective opinions on the ground came almost exclusively from Belgrade, Novi Sad or Kraljevo, but almost never from Prishtina. [1]

In this way the field of representation of Kosov@ Albanian fears, wishes and hopes remained wide open for the ideology-producing machinery of Nato and, under its wing, also of the KLA leadership, which each for their own reasons of power strategy aimed at ethnicizing and emotionalizing. This emotionalizing does work with existing feelings, but forces them into an interpretation framework useable for war propaganda which leaves no trace of their complexity and their historicity. Without independent access to those subjectivities, a part of the Western European left does not manage, in its rejection of emotionalizing, to break through the propaganda and to see – behind it – people with their own history and ideas about life. What remains is a sort of bitterness through which the said left perceives "the Kosov@ Albanians" as alien, hostile and Nato-allied, in its turn ideologizing, essentializing and ethnicizing them.

First irritation: Panel discussion in Zurich

For a panel discussion on "Leftist Perspectives in South-East Europe" four people from different parts of Yugoslavia (Zagreb, Novi Sad, Prishtina) as well as two from the Swiss migration were invited. Together they made an attempt at giving a politically active Swiss audience a feeling for what it might mean, in various regional contexts, to stand up against big politics, against the regime and its power logic.

A few explanations on vocabulary may reveal the difficulties in applying the concept of "leftist" "political" "opposition" to the Yugoslav situation. None of these three terms are likely to be used by people who act in dissidence towards emancipatory, anti-nationalist, anti-racist and anti-patriarchal goals.

Firstly, in Yugoslavia, the term of “politics” is understood to mean state structures, characterized by corruption, oppression and deception. The book by Dubravka Ugrešić, for instance, “The Culture of Lies”, one of the most readable books about the wars in Yugoslavia, in the South-Slavic original version carries the subtitle "Antipolitical Essays", an important side-swipe which has been suppressed in the German-language edition. [2] Only the opening quote from György Konrads "Antipolitics: An Essay" still hints at the missing subtitle. Also, the term used by Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) to signify that they are not affiliated with any political party translates literally to "unpolitical", not to "non-partisan".

The idea of an extra-parliamentarian opposition is not familiar. One would rather speak of dissidence to designate struggles against oppression. The "opposition" is part of the corrupt state structures and takes part in the nationalist discourse. It is in bed with the government when it considers it can be to its advantage, and wags a monitory finger at it when it sees this as the more promising thing to do.

“The left” in Yugoslavia usually means the regime. The Yugoslav United Left is the party led by Mira Marković, wife of President Slobodan Milošević. People from an older generation, like the filmmaker Želimir Žilnik from Novi Sad, do still remember attempts, before 1989, at imposing a (true) leftist project against the (fake) “left” in power. Coming from a different tradition, namely a reference to anarchist position which were reintroduced in Yugoslavia by academics already in the years before 1989, some younger activists like those from the Autonomous Culture Factory Attack in Zagreb may also refer to "leftist" ideas in positive ways.

Not only the difficulty in transferring the concepts from a Swiss context to the political field (and its structuring) in Yugoslavia becomes apparent – in addition, Yugoslavia cannot be seen as one unit in this respect. The context for dissident activities in Zagreb, Novi Sad or Prishtina is quite different. The intervention of Jeta Xharra, a young journalist and co-founder of a women’s media project in Prishtina, appeared to be the most provocative, the hardest to fit in the political discussions we are used to here.

She emphasized that she had never known the Yugoslavia that was repeatedly referred to in Western discussions. In the eighties and nineties, Kosov@ was already thoroughly ethnicized and the ethnicizing inscribed in people’s bodies by the violence of the government and the daily discrimination. There was therefore no question of preventing the ethnicizing by foreseeing it, but at best to tackle its consequences and develop strategies of survival. Jeta Xharra forcefully condemns the expulsion and oppression of the Serbs, Roma and Muslims after the end of the Nato bombings and does what she can as a journalist to make them known. On the other hand, in her context she did not see a possibility to bring about an end of the attacks of the Yugoslav government on Albanians in Kosov@ without Nato bombing.

The point cannot be to construct a higher moral position from the fact that Jeta Xharra is directly affected, and just to agree with her. But the reflex typical of the Western left, of drawing a strict line between oneself and the "ally of imperialism", would be just as inadequate. Whoever wants to seriously deal with the developments on the Balkans and is interested, beyond a merely theoretical level, to exchange ideas with people who have experienced the events on their skin, or even to collaborate with them on political/antipolitical activities, is well advised to contextualize positions expressed, and to take into account the circumstances under which they have emerged.

Second irritation – a presentation with a surprise

It is one thing to present in an article, from the safe distance of a Western European analysis, some thoughts about possible ways to deal with the war in Yugoslavia from a radical leftist point of view, and to distribute those in the German-language regions. [3] The story becomes slightly more interesting when one translates that article into English, thus making it possible for a whole range of readers who live in various countries of the Balkans and understand English, to criticize it and the ideas contained in it. Based on said translation I had the opportunity to present some ideas about the ethnicizing of social conflicts [4] and possible ways of dealing with the questions raised by the war, to students and teachers at the American University in Blagoevgrad in the southern part of Bulgaria near the border to Macedonia in a lecture one evening.

The ideas I presented prompted a lively discussion. "How does that fit together, that the IMF first puts pressure on Yugoslavia to pay its debt, and now Western armies are bombing Yugoslavia in a way that will prevent it from continuing to service its debt." – "What might be the interest of the Nato governments to destroy the Yugoslav economy?" It turns out that about half the people present are from Yugoslavia, Kosov@ or Albania. The university in Blagoevgrad is a meeting point for students from all over the Balkans and further east from countries all the way to the Caspian sea (many thanks to the US government for the subsidies and the infrastructure ;-).

One of the persons present, whom later introduces himself to me as a journalist from Prishtina by the name of Trim Krasniqi [5], asks me: "Why didn’t you mention the population of Kosov@? You didn’t explain at all where the war started and to what length people went to pull Nato into this." – After all these thoughts about the complex interaction of Western interests and about strategies by the Yougoslav government clique to remain in power, I had in fact left out an important point, or at least had hinted at it from a great distance in rather abstract terms – the interests, hopes and fears of Albanians in Kosov@. It is not as if I had never heard about Albanians, and certainly among them the KLA leadership (KLA is the Kosova Liberation Army, known also under the Albanian abbreviation UÇK, which stands for Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës) endeavoring to bring about a situation in which Nato troops could be made to intervene. Jeta Xharra had also explained how in her work with the BBC television crews she had been intent, in her treatment of topics, on legitimizing a Nato intervention.

I had not just repressed this knowledge. I did have a certain feeling for the contradictions involved. But all this I had not integrated into my way of speaking about things. Maybe I felt too awkward about it. How can I speak about this? How can I get it across that people who are close to me politically and personally – like Jeta Xharra and Trim Krasniqi – have worked towards an intervention by Nato and still find this a correct approach even after the bombings?

The reasons for the incapability of large parts of a Western radical left to put themselves, on an intellectual or an emotional level, into the shoes of Albanians in Kosov@, are described by the autonome a.f.r.i.k.a.-gruppe [6] as a Balkanism of the left, following the criticism of Orientalism by Edward Said. The inevitability of conflicts among "peoples" on the Balkans, outside of "civilized Europe" is taken for granted in a racist expectation. This racism finds its expression also in leftist circles referring to images of a drug-dealing KLA – images originally developed for legitimizing state control of migration, and repression. [7] The point can therefore not only be to propose a left-humanitarian way of breaking up the ethnicizing of social conflicts on the Balkans. First, one’s own ethnicized outlook must be addressed.

Third irritation: Visit in Prishtina

After the presentation and discussion I get into a conversation with Trim Krasniqi. He invites me to join him on a trip to Prishtina, the capital of Kosov@s, over the coming weekend.

We hit the road, four of us. In this way, we can minimize the cost on the stretches where we have to take taxis. It takes us seven hours to reach Prishtina in Kosov@ from Blagoevgrad in the South of Bulgaria. As the crow flies it would be 200 kilometers, but that would takes us through Yugoslavia. Taking the detour through Skopje in Macedonia it is almost 300 kilometers. In Skopje, we eat in one of the numerous Albanian restaurants. Nothing is labeled in Albanian. My companions explain to me that hefty fines dissuade the owners from doing so. In the presidential elections the Albanian population is set to tip the scales between the ex-communist and the "democrats". After the first round, a few days later one of the Albanian candidates would make his recommendation for voting in the second round dependent on whether the social democratic candidate called for national rights for Albanians in Macedonia, for schools in Albanian language and for the recognition of the independence of Kosov@. A demand that would then be very firmly rejected, on the grounds that there was no reason to give such preferential treatment to the Albanian minority as compared to other minorities.

The last stretch, from the Macedonian border to Kosovo@ to Prishtina, we get a ride on a loaded microbus with Zurich license plates. The driver has been living in Switzerland for 23 years and is now bringing things to his relatives. He would never again do the trip by car, he says. Three days on the road, crossing Italy to reach Greece and Macedonia. At every border crossing, hours of waiting for customs clearance. Before the war, everything was easier. Now so much is destroyed, so many people have died. His voice will remain one of the few that emphasizes suffering and destruction and closes itself to the hope and sense of a new beginning that has seized much of the Albanian population in Kosov@.

Prishtina is full of cars, many of them still bearing German export plates of September 99. License plates are not required, most have lost their driver’s license during the war, and speed limits on roads are non-existent. The visibility of the KFOR units is – contrary to what I expected – minimal, except in the vicinity of official buildings. No police checks on the streets. Trim Krasniqi embraces the streets with a wide swing of his arm: "You see, now I can quietly walk through the streets of Prishtina and don’t need to be afraid!" I feel a certain euphoria of freedom in these streets, have to think of the police checks at every corner in Zurich, or even of the ubiquitous traffic police in Sofia.

We walk by the canteen of the University of Prishtina in which the famous protests of 1981 started (cf. sideline). "Before the war it was dangerous to walk past it," my guide explains to me. He comes back to what I said in Blagoevgrad: "You are right that the revolt of 1981 was not defined in ethnic terms at the outset. But it was not a common revolt of Albanian and Serb students against the conditions at the canteen, either. When Albanian students organized something, the Serb students just watched, and vice versa." The concept of ethnicizing comes up repeatedly in our discussions – sometimes in joking allusions, sometimes in a more serious context.

The wonderful anarchy and sense of freedom in which Prishtina presents itself – to those who have not been expulsed, or who are able to come back – seems to me to be characteristic of a transitory phase. Not to the kind of transition – as in "transition economy" – towards a supporting act in a capitalist market economy through which other countries of Eastern Europe are being railroaded under the supervision of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank and the European Union, but rather for the usually shorter phases of non-organization in which the forces set to impose their hegemony have not yet had the opportunity to either coordinate their efforts or to mark out their respective spheres of influence.

Under the surface, a new order is already lurking. Officially there is no tax income for the fledgling state structure, for the protectorate. It is however an open secret that taxes are collected by KLA circles close to Hashim Thaci. "The KLA is sacred," emphasizes Trim Krasniqi, "it has shown us a way out of our passivity and has helped us to escape the Serbian oppression. The individual leaders however are ordinary people." In a discussion, the chief editor of one of the daily newspapers in Prishtina explains to us that a deep rift separates the KLA and Ibrahim Rugova’s LDK (Democratic League of Kosov@), a rift between countryside and city, between "communism" and "democracy". Most of the KLA leaders are now jobless, and being without any civilian training they are unlikely to find a job. Sooner or later, they will either try to secure their power through Mafia structures or end up in jail. Already, he says, political opponents are being intimidated. When I ask a person who works closely with Ibrahim Rugova about this, he denies any deep rifts and sees the current disputes as a temporary phenomenon. But it may not be completely ludicrous see, behind the stereotypes used by the chief editor, actual conflict potentials.

A person working for UNMIK, the UN Mission in Kosovo, which functions as a civil administration, lowers her voice when she tells us how a project serving the public good which has been proposed by someone from Prishtina, and which she considers a rather good project, will hardly be realized because the British UN representatives have already made friends with the corresponding previous state monopoly and are hoping, in tandem with that company, for contracts for British companies. It is hard to believe that any of the UN delegations were sent to Kosov@ to serve the public good.

The number of Western organizations that have come down on Prishtina is impressive. An entire sector in one of the richer parts of town has been almost monopolized by NGOs (Non-Government Organizations). These range from the infamous IOM (International Organization for Migration, or rather: against Migration) to the German Industry and Commerce Association (Deutscher Industrie- und Handelstag) and represent a great variety of more or less commercial interests – Kosov@ as a business opportunity.

A nightmare of Western colonization? Trim Krasniqi clarifies: "A great variety of interests come together in Kosov@, and the protectorate was not installed simply for the good of the people. Nevertheless, it cannot be compared to the oppression by the Serbian army and authorities."

A common process is needed

The logic of power and of war has pushed the Albanians in Kosov@ into a situation in which some opted for escalating the conflict in order to change their situation. In its dynamic, this decision has led to the tables being turned against the non-Albanian population, who is now being persecuted and expulsed. Maybe a way could have been found to prevent such consequences of the liberation of a part of the Kosov@ population. In any event, however, those Albanians did not, in their decision to escalate, have the possibility to escape the logic of power imposed from outside.

In dealing with ethnicized conflicts it seems essential to me on the one hand to trace their social origins and the strategies of ethnicizing them, and thus to undermine the essentialist approaches to them, but at the same time also to see that ethnic categories do receive, through the process of ethnicizing, a level of reality which the people thus ethnicized cannot simply escape through rhetoric tricks just because they reject ethnicized views. The point thereby cannot be simply to evaluate and judge, "from outside", the behavior of this or that party to such a conflict, but to find a way out of the ethnicizing in a common process. This means that various interests, fears and hopes have to be accepted, and some contradictions have to be left to exist. Those who produce dichotomies, who "balkanize" the Balkans and "albanize" the Kosov@ Albanians, contributes themselves to the ethnicizing.

It is precisely in such a common process that I see point of departure for a solution to the difficulties with vocabulary mentioned above. The point is not to replace, after intensive studying of dictionaries, a set of potentially misleading terms by another, better one. On the contrary, a common discussion – including a mutually understandable vocabulary –, a common basis or even a common praxis can only be developed if people with various backgrounds and personal histories come together and gropingly try out what meaning their speaking about things takes on when they listen to each other and put to use the shifts – called up by the subjectivity of the other in its interplay with one’s own irritation about it – occurring in the meanings. In the process the use of terms does not need to be adapted to each other and unified. In my experience it does become possible at a later stage to communicate what is behind my understanding of a concept. I will not receive this opportunity, however, if I mindlessly use the terms that have different connotation to the person I speak to, before I have illustrated what I mean by them. This impossibility, at the outset, to use the vocabulary I am used to, forces me to make the concepts more precise even for myself, to dig below the surface of the catch-phrases and give up deep-rooted stereotypes that are often kept up through the use of a certain vocabulary. Once the terms have been pealed of their layers of misunderstanding and embedded into their historical context, I may notice that, formerly hidden under differences in language use, many common experiences can be found that point beyond the differences in the immediate situation of life, and which can serve as starting points for further discussions.
"On 11 March 1981 around lunchtime, students of the University of Prishtina started protests because of the bad quality of the canteen food and against the bad conditions of living and work. What started out as a peaceful demonstration by a few hundred students changed completely when a rumor about alleged arrests started to circulate. A second demonstration then formed, with slogans demanding the release of those in detention, until the entire demonstration turned into protests against the party leadership of Kosovo. […] On 26 March there was another demonstration, since nothing had chanced since 11 March. Besides the social demands, for the first time now nationalist slogans could be heard: "Kosovo to the Kosovars", "We are Albanians, not Yugoslavs". […] During the following days there were clashes with the police all over Kosovo. But this time it was not the students alone but also the workers who left their factories to protest against their miserable living conditions. The entire region seemed to be exploding – the situation had escalated. On 2 April a state of emergency was imposed on the entire region, and the army was called to crush the revolt. One hundred dead people later, the deathly quiet was reestablished." ("Ethnicizing Social Conflicts", cf. Footnote 4).


1 Just like I choose to write Kosov@ in order to take into account both the Serbian spelling Kosovo and the Albanian variant Kosova, I do not want the spelling "Prishtina" to be interpreted as linguistically corroborating any territorial claim. Both in Albanian and in Serbian the name of the capital of Kosov@ is pronounced "Prishtina". In Albanian it is spelled "Prishtina", in Serbian correspondingly in cyrillic. The latter is usually transliterated as "Priština" or, if the s-Hácek is missing in the font, sometimes as „Pris<tina", in which the Hácek (Czech: little hook) is hinted at by the "smaller" sign. Please take "Prishtina" to be - also - my way of transliterating the Serbian cyrillic spelling in English.

2 In fact the English edition does carry the subtitle. Dubravka Ugrešić: The Culture of Lies : Antipolitical Essays (Post-Communist Cultural Studies), 1998.

3 Alain Kessi: Kosov@ / NATO: Economy of war and of communication. Request English version from the author: <> or find it at <>. Original German version, Alain Kessi: Kosov@ / NATO: Ökonomie des Krieges und der Kommunikation. In: com.une.farce No 2 (99), 1 June 1999, online at <> or directly at <>.

4 Cf. Die Ethnisierung des Sozialen - Das Beispiel Jugoslawien - Mit aktuellem Anhang, Materialien für einen neuen Antiimperialismus Vol. 6, Trotzdem Verlag 1999 (First edition 1993) (Ethnicizing Social Conflicts - The Example of Yugoslavia - With an Updated Annex). Available online at <>, updated annex at <>.

5 Name changed.

6 autonome a.f.r.i.k.a.-gruppe: Gegen wessen Kriege welchen Widerstand? // Thesen für einen neuen Anti-Militarismus // Version 1.0, com.une.farce Nr. 3, <> (Against whose wars what resistance? // Theses for a new anti-militarism // Version 1.0.).

7 With the prominent support of the Canadian economist Michel Chossudovsky who in earlier articles has usually provided a good overview over the processes of globalization and especially about "Dismantling Yugoslavia; Colonizing Bosnia" <>, but in his text about the KLA and its alleged involvement in organized crime, "Kosovo 'Freedom Fighters' Financed by Organized Crime" <>, he goes so far as to use the conspiracy theorist and strongly ethnicizing "Truth in Media" <> as a source. For a critical assessment of Chossudovsky's article see Michael Karadjis: Chossudovsky's frame-up of the KLA, Green Left Weekly, Issue #360, May 12, 1999 <>