Towards a Perfect Civil Society

Barry Knight

When I am asked whether a perfect civil society has ever existed, the answer often surprises people. A study by Charles H Fairbanks showed that it existed in Kosovo in the middle years of this decade.[1]

At that time, ordinary people in this small country in southern Yugoslavia fulfilled the anarchist’s dream of collective responsibility, self-help, creativity and self-control. Ethnic Albanians, who formed 90 per cent of the population, set up their own institutions, paid taxes to an informal government, and ran schools in people’s homes and in mosques, while Albanian doctors delivered primary health care.

There was also a high incidence of neighbourliness and volunteering within the Albanian community. The blood feuds between Albanians that had led to charges of ‘amoral familism’ in the 1980s were put to one side to create Rousseau’s imagined ‘Sparta without an army or a state’ – a citizenry who could regulate themselves without need for external authority or military power. Money to support this experiment was raised from sympathetic countries, particularly Germany, the Albanian diaspora, and smuggling.

There’s always a shadow
Nevertheless, there was a shadow cast over this apparently idyllic civil society. Serbia had stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989, and Serbs replaced Albanians in government jobs. Following a brief rebellion, which was put down with 140 deaths, Albanians informally seceded from the state and set up their own parallel institutions. When Ibrahim Rugova was elected president of the Albanians in May 1992, his Democratic League of Kosovo used the device of parallel institutions as a form of passive resistance against the Serbs. Such passive resistance was undertaken as a conscious alternative to the Muslim and Croatian stance in Bosnia, where aggressive confrontation with the Serbs had led to widespread ethnic cleansing.

Not all Albanians liked this approach. Some suggested that pacifism meant passivity but they went along with it for the sake of unity. Serbs accepted the situation, save for some token gestures, and supported Rugova, fearing a replacement would be more hostile.

A turning point came in 1995, with the end of the war in Bosnia. Albanians in Kosovo had expected a settlement of the Kosovan question in the Dayton Peace Accord, and were shocked when there was none. Feeling that the West would not support Kosovan independence, the consensus on passive resistance was shattered, and Albanians became more militant. The result was the emergence from 1996 of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) as a paramilitary force committed to winning independence through violent means. The years 1997 and 1998 saw an ever-growing number of terrorist incidents, with atrocities on both sides, leading to a Serbian clampdown. The rest we know and the tragic results are now constantly before us on our television screens.

Civil society is fragile
We can now see that civil society in Kosovo was a bubble waiting to burst. It was wedged between two dark forces, militancy from within and repression from without. Civil society is best seen as a fragile condition, easily broken. An important question is ‘Under what conditions does civil society thrive?’

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[1] Charles H Fairbanks (1995) ‘The Withering of the State’, Uncaptive Minds, vol 8, no 2, pp5–21.