The vote to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy as a Yugoslav province on March 23, 1989 was a crucial moment that inspired political resistance, stoked up ethnic unrest and set the course towards armed conflict in the 1990s.

by Serbeze Haxhiaj and Milica Stojanovic

This article is also available in: Shqip Bos/Hrv/Srp

“It was a day for conscience and responsibility,” Termkolli told BIRN.

Kosovo’s autonomy as part of the Yugoslav federation was granted in 1974 under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, giving it almost the same rights as Yugoslavia’s six republics. Fifteen years later, this was being reversed.

Termkolli expected most members of the Provincial Assembly to vote against the withdrawal of autonomy. But they didn’t.

“I felt like a part of me died. I stand up and looked at most of the faces. They looked like crows to me. I said to myself: ‘Now Kosovo is gone,’” she recalled.

The minutes from the Provincial Assembly session that day say that 167 of its 190 members voted to accept the amendments. Only Termkolli and nine other ethnic Albanian members voted against.

“It was a moment of shame. A dark episode that would have negative consequences,” she said.

Five days later, the Assembly of Serbia approved the constitutional changes, effectively revoking Kosovo’s autonomy.

The day after that, unrest erupted in Pristina and the city of Ferizaj/Urosevac, where police attacked students who were protesting against the changes.

“Police charged into 1,000 students on the university campus in the Kosovo capital Pristina. The television showed them beating the students with batons,” The Guardian newspaper reported at the time.

Termkolli said she believes that the revocation of autonomy was part of “a well-prepared scenario by [then Serbian Communist Party leader] Slobodan Milosevic”.

“Shortly after this, on June 28 [1989], Milosevic would inflame a new wave of nationalism and ethnic hatred,” she added.

Milosevic’s speech in June at the site of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, a key event in Serbian history and mythology, caused some commentators to suggest that its nationalistic rhetoric could permanently damage ethnic relations in Kosovo.

However, Milosevic’s policies on Kosovo were not only driven by the nationalist idea of creating a ‘Greater Serbia’, but were also used pragmatically to bolster his political support among Serbs, argued Dusan Janjic from Forum for Ethnic Relations in Belgrade.

“Kosovo was first and foremost an instrument of Milosevic’s rise to power [in the 1980s] as well as an instrument for preserving power,” Janjic told BIRN.

‘MPs should have defied the tanks’

Melihate Termkolli giving a speech to the Kosovo Provincial Assembly on the day of the autonomy vote in 1989. Photo courtesy of Melihate Termkolli.

After the proposals to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy were put forward, a series of protests erupted including an eight-day hunger strike by 1,200 Kosovo miners at the Trepca lead and zinc mines in February 1989, the month before the vote.

A state of emergency was then imposed by the Yugoslav authorities and 15,000 troops were sent into Kosovo.

Azem Vllasi, the former head of the Kosovo branch of Yugoslavia’s ruling Communist Party, said that before the vote, Milosevic had already moved to restructure the party hierarchy to enable him to wield more power.

Kosovo’s Communist Party leader at the time, Kaqusha Jashari, stepped down, and Rrahman Morina, a Milosevic supporter who called for the abrogation of Kosovo’s autonomy, took her place.

“It was clear that if the Communist Party in Kosovo was disrupted it would be easy to go ahead with the constitutional amendments [revoking Kosovo’s autonomy],” Vllasi told BIRN.

“But the head of the Communist Party should not have resigned and made way for Milosevic supporters. It was a mistake. We should have resisted more than we did,” he argued.

BIRN contacted Jashari for this story but she declined to comment, citing health issues.

On March 22, the day before the Provincial Assembly vote, the leadership of the Kosovo Communist Party called on lawmakers to back the constitutional changes. On the same day, Milosevic addressed a gathering in Belgrade and called for repressive measures in Kosovo.

Vllasi argued that ethnic Albanian members of the Provincial Assembly should have shown more courage.

“Despite the state of siege and the Assembly being surrounded by tanks and police, MPs did not have to vote in favour of the constitutional changes. Albanians were in the majority and without their votes, the amendments would not have been passed,” Vllasi said.

BIRN contacted nine former members of the Provincial Assembly who voted in favour of the constitutional amendments that day. All of them said that they were not in good enough health to respond.

‘We wanted the Communist establishment out’

Isufi Beqiri, who was involved in the 1989 Kosovo miners’ strike. Photo: BIRN.

At his house in the village of Bajgora in Kosovo’s Mitrovica municipality, Isufi Beqiri gripped the table with his hands and frowned with anger as he thought back to the revocation of autonomy.

Beqiri was one of the Trepca miners who went on hunger strike on February 1989 to oppose the constitutional changes. They wanted the resignation of Kosovo Communist Party leader Rrahman Morina, who they called “Milosevic’s puppet”.

“We knew that the constitutional changes were directed against Kosovo’s autonomy. We opposed them and wanted Rrahman Morina out, and the rest of the Communist establishment who were preparing the reoccupation of Kosovo by Serbia,” Beqiri told BIRN.

“While all the people of Kosovo supported our strike, they cheated us, saying that Morina had resigned and our requirements were accepted and we should stop the strike,” he recalled.

Three weeks later, Beqiri was finishing his shift at the mine when he heard that lawmakers in the Provincial Assembly had voted for the constitutional changes.

“It was treason, not only a matter of fear and pressure on them. I think they were bought,” he said.

As demonstrations against the abolition of autonomy continued in the wake of the vote, 22 Kosovo Albanians were killed in clashes with security forces.  The Yugoslav Interior Ministry blamed what it described as “separatists and nationalists”.

Nevertheless, Belgrade had gained control of Kosovo’s police, judiciary and security regime, and no longer needed to consult the province about further changes to Serbia’s constitution.

In Serbia, several thousand people gathered at the Sava Centre in Belgrade to celebrate the restoration of power over Kosovo. Milosevic was then proposed for the post of Serbia’s president.

Vllasi said that the outcome was a “victory for Milosevic”, although it stored up trouble to come. As an editorial in The Guardian predicted on March 29, 1989: “Kosovo is now an occupied province where Serbian fears of Albanian armed struggle could become self-fulfilling.”

‘They sacrificed Kosovo’

Jusufi Buxhovi, a historian who was an activist in the late 1980s. Photo courtesy of Jusufi Buxhovi.

Dusan Janjic said that Milosevic’s undisguised craving for absolute power gave Serbia’s military leadership the hope that he would manage to secure control over most of the former Yugoslavia.

“In order to control Yugoslavia, the Milosevic regime set itself the goal of mastering Kosovo beforehand, and the discontinuation of communication between Serbs and Albanians aided this project, as the Serb population’s sense of vulnerability and its need to organise on an ethnic basis increased,” Janjic suggested.

Jusufi Buxhovi, a Kosovo historian who was a political activist at that time, said that the pretext for the constitutional changes were protests in 1981 over the suggestion that Kosovo could become the seventh republic of Yugoslavia, not just a province.

“Serbia’s leadership wanted federal units that according to the 1974 constitution were part of the [Yugoslav] federation to be returned to Serbia’s control,” Buxhovi told BIRN.

By 1989, the other Yugoslav republics were not interested in confronting Belgrade over Kosovo, he said.

“They sacrificed Kosovo by supporting the declaration of the state of emergency in Kosovo [in March 1989],” he argued.

More than three decades afterwards, Termkolli said that the echoes of the applause when the Provincial Assembly voted still resonate in her ears.

Lighting one cigarette after other, she burst into tears when she remembered the voices shouting all around her, telling her that she wanted to “destroy Yugoslavia” by maintaining Kosovo’s autonomy.

But some of those who voted in favour came to regret what they did, according to Termkolli: “Years later, I have seen some of them conscience-stricken,” she said.

The Provincial Assembly’s vote to adopt the constitutional changes was a turning point for Kosovo and Serbia, Buxhovi concluded: “With this act, the collapse of Yugoslavia started.”

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