No amount of anti-communist propaganda can obscure the fact that, since 1945, Yugoslavia has by and large been governed with the consent of its peoples. Equally, no amount of official piety can hide the fact that the League of Communists (lcy) has held power only by virtue of such confidence as it has commanded in the working class and the country’s constituent nations. In February 1989, an unprecedented general strike of Albanian workers in the province of Kosovo confirmed this fact in the most dramatic way possible. Since the previous November, the consolidation of an openly and indeed triumphantly nationalist leadership in Serbia had led to the banning of all public meetings and demonstrations in Kosovo. The workers therefore retreated to their strongholds—the factories and mines—in a last-ditch attempt to defend national and democratic rights. A creeping general strike of industry was by February to culminate in a near complete shutdown of the province’s economic life. The vanguard was constituted by the miners of the Trepča mining—industrial complex with its headquarters in Titova Mitro-
The miners’ determination and solidarity were awesome. They told journalists that they were determined to ‘come out in coffins’ unless their demands were met.footnote2 With them was Beqir Maliqi, the mine’s chief engineer, who—though old and by the sixth day gravely ill—refused to come up. The furnacemen, also on strike, spoke of committing collective suicide if Trepča was stormed. Below the ground, a strict guard was maintained over two tonnes of dynamite, to prevent any desperate action. The sick were sent up, suffering from respiratory and stomach problems (eyes, it seems, also suffered), to be treated by doctors and either returned immediately down or—if gravely ill—transferred to a hospital in Prishtina, the provincial capital. By the end of the strike, a hundred and eighty miners had ended there, some of them in intensive care.
Overground there was an equally tight discipline, maintained by miners wearing red armbands. Children and women waited patiently at the entrance of the pit, anxious for news. A Zagreb television crew went to visit one miner’s family. They found a mother with nine children, occupying a self-made structure without windowpanes to protect them from the harsh February winds, huddled around a wood fire: despite the fact that Kosovo produces a substantial proportion of Yugoslavia’s electricity, the family lived in darkness. In November 1987, the average wage in Trepča was $55 a month, barely enough to keep a family from starvation. During the strike, moreover, many of the strikers refused their wages. This family had not even a radio to stay in touch with developments at the mine.
Elsewhere in the province, everything was at a standstill. Only the elec
The first to send a message of support were the miners of Slovenia. The Yugoslav party leadership, meanwhile, split on how to proceed. The Slovenian party supported an appeal by the republic’s Socialist Alliance that Albanian human and national rights should be respected. A similar statement was issued by the Croatian Trade Union Alliance, and the Croatian party soon followed suit. The Serbian party, on the other hand, was set against all compromise, and could count on the support of party organizations in Vojvodina, Montenegro and Macedonia. The Bosnian party maintained a prudent silence. The collective state presidency, for its part, talked of using ‘all constitutional means at our disposal’ to secure law and order in the province: by the time the strike reached its high point, fresh paramilitary forces had been sent in and armoured personnel carriers appeared on the outskirts of the main towns, followed by tanks and lowflying jet fighters. One might have been back in 1981, when (following mass demonstrations demanding republican status for Kosovo, which the Federal authorities dubbed an attempt at ‘counter-revolution’) the province was placed under a state of emergency, then an unprecedented measure in post-war Yugoslavia.footnote3