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-vica. A historic centre of working-class activity in Kosovo, formerly owned by British capital, Trepča supplied some of the earliest members of the pre-war Communist Party. Trepča miners were also among the first to join the wartime anti-fascist resistance. Now, in the third week of February 1989, 1,300 zinc and lead miners occupied their pits 3,300 feet underground, some of them on hunger strike, for eight days. Their demands were quite simple. They called for the resignation of three provincial officials imposed on them that month at the insistence of the Serbian party.footnote1 They asked that any constitutional limitation of Kosovo’s autonomy—something which Belgrade had been pressing for—should be subject to democratic debate. Their third and most important demand was that the Albanian population should cease being treated as secondclass citizens and a second-class nation in their own country. Not since the end of the war had Yugoslavia witnessed such a powerful workers’ action in defence of key gains of the revolution. The issues were crystal clear, splitting the whole country into two well-defined camps and marking a watershed in its post-war history. Ranged on the side of the workers were all those forces, within and outside the League of Communists, who stand for a democratic Yugoslavia, based on full national equality. Confronting them were the forces of bureaucratic reaction, in alliance with national chauvinism, fully prepared to use violence against the working class.

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 electricity workers were press-ganged back to work. Students and schoolchildren were also on strike. Even privately owned shops had their doors firmly shut. The markets were empty. Yet there was no organizing committee to direct the course of events, to collect and centralize the demands, to speak on behalf of the general strike. Despite this, the people spoke with one voice, demanding national justice and democracy.

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

The weakness of the Federal party leadership was most starkly exposed by its handling of the Kosovo strike and its aftermath. On 28 February the miners appeared to have won, with the resignation of the three hated officials. They left the pits (though the strike continued elsewhere). The following day, however, under the pressure of a party-led nationalist mass mobilization in Belgrade, their resignations were ‘suspended’. By this time, it was clear that the stakes were much higher than the fate of the three men, and involved the survival of democratic gains in Yugoslavia as a whole. Under the pressure of Serbian hardliners, the lcy presidency, meeting that day, not only reaffirmed its support for the constitutional changes sought by Serbia, but also called for a ban on all new political organizations in the country. Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian party boss, promised the assembled populace ‘in the name of Serbia’ that the organizers of the general strike would be arrested and punished. The first arrests were made on 2 March, and on 5 March it was announced that hundreds of workers faced criminal charges, as did even shopkeepers who had closed in sympathy with the strike. Kosovo is already under de-facto military rule. At the same time Slovenia, where the process of democratization has gone furthest, is being singled out as an object of particular hatred. What is to guarantee that the practice of constitutional changes made under military duress will not be extended to the rest of the country?

‘The situation is growing worse by the day and the full responsibility for it rests with the League of Communists which—instead of offering new ideas and initiatives—has become the main brake on all positive change. The complete lack of perspective in our society prevents my continuing my membership, since I do not believe that the League of Communists is capable of taking our society out of the crisis in which it finds itself. We can no longer speak of it as the vanguard’, wrote a Croat Communist recently in his letter of resignation.footnote4