On 2 April 1981, massive demonstrations took place in the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, an area of Yugoslavia inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians, to demand republican status within the Yugoslav federation. By the end of the next day, the army had moved in with tanks and armoured personnel carriers to institute martial law, the first time this has happened in the country since 1945. The party leadership declared that they were fighting counter-revolution. Yet they offered no evidence to show that Kosovars were demanding restoration of capitalism in this poorest of Yugoslav provinces, plagued by far the lowest standard of living and highest rates of unemployment. The April demonstrations were not staffed by remnants of the old order suddenly resurrected by the approaching anniversary of Tito’s death. On the contrary, most of the protesters were extremely young, many still in secondary and some even in primary school.

The trouble started on 11 March with an action by students protesting against poor living condition in university hostels at Priština, capital of the province. Discussions with the university administration followed, in which the students aired a whole number of grievances concerning the state of their province—high unemployment, poverty, backwardness, social differences, etc.—and put forward the demand for republican status.footnote1 They then marched to the provincial party headquarters in the centre of the city, but the police broke up this demonstration with relative ease. The whole affair would probably have ended there, had it not been for the fact that on 23 March the city was to celebrate Tito’s official birthday and the local party leaders—nervous about the possible repercussions of any breakdown of order upon Kosovo’s place in the federation, in the uncertain atmosphere of the first year after Tito’s death—were desperately anxious for the occasion to pass off without incident. They therefore ordered the police to round up all potential troublemakers, including student leaders, prior to the celebrations. The result was the exact opposite of what they had intended: students and others collected on 23 March in the streets leading to the city’s main square, with banners demanding the release of their comrades, denouncing Kosovo’s inferior status and demanding a republic. Ordered to prevent their entry into the square, and badly prepared for a crowd that size, the police behaved with considerable brutality: tear gas was used to break up the demonstration, shots were fired, and more arrests followed. By 2 April demonstrations had spread throughout the province, in an explosion of popular anger unseen since the war. Reports from a variety of sources agree that the chief demand everywhere was that Kosovo should be made a republic.

The local party, keen at first to deal with the disturbances without recourse to outside aid, imposed a news blackout, which only made things worse, allowing the wildest rumours to circulate (e.g. that Priština was burning)—reflecting the widespread fear of a return to the Ranković era.footnote2 By 2 April, faced with what amounted to a generalized revolt, the party called up Belgrade and asked for help. On 3 April the province was put under martial law. Extra security forces were rushed in: troops with armour; police units from other republics and Vojvodina (in their seven respective uniforms); and above all detachments of the All Yugoslav Security Forces, a federal paramilitary body here seen in action for the first time. They proceeded to re-establish order. By the time they had finished, the final toll—by official figures—was twelve dead and over one hundred and fifty wounded. The actual numbers, however, were certainly far higher—perhaps as many as three hundred dead—suggesting that the aysf, in particular, had been explicitly given a free hand in suppressing the disorders.

Martial law was lifted some two months later, but extra security forces remained encamped outside the main towns. They are still there. The open confrontations of March, April and May gave way gradually to passive resistance. Even today, after hundreds of arrests and long prison sentences,footnote3 after 55 different illegal groups belonging to four different organizations have been uncovered and disbanded, the situation has not returned to normal. A fall in the industrial production, far beyond anything attributable to economic crisis, cannot but be related to the systematic purges which have taken place in the party and state administration, and to the general sense of sullen bitterness following the repression.

The Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia is a state composed of six Socialist Republics (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) and two Socialist Autonomous Provinces (Kosovo, Vojvodina). The two Provinces are also formally a part of the SR Serbia: of the two, Vojvodina is ethnically very mixed, Kosovo predominantly Albanian. The national question in Yugoslavia is defined by the following structural elements:

(1) The country is a multinational state in which no single nationality claims a majority. If one takes the figure of 600,000 (the approximate size of the Montenegrin group) as the lower bench-mark, there are seven main nationalities, of which one—the Albanian—is non-Slav. The country has no common language: although a large part of the population (over 70%) speaks Serbo-Croat, the fact that this language appears in two major literary variants makes the whole sphere of public communications even in Serbo-Croat an arena for nationalist contestation.

(2) Most nationalities are not located in geographically discrete areas, but co-mingle in the six republics and two provinces, giving each federal unit a multi-national character in turn. The degree of ethnic heterogeneity varies (see table and map below), but the presence of these minorities is often a vociferous reminder of the interdependence of Yugoslavia’s constituent parts.