Mahmut Bakalli

Former Kosovan Communist leader who testified against Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague


Mahmut Bakalli, politician: born Djakovica, Yugoslavia 19 January 1936; Secretary, Pristina Committee, League of Communists 1967-70; President, Kosovo League of Communists 1971-81; member of parliament, Kosovo, 2001-06; married (three daughters); died Pristina 15 April 2006.

Mahmut Bakalli's 10-year stay at the top of Kosovo's Communist leadership came to an abrupt end in 1981 when student demonstrations for better living conditions and for an enhanced status for Kosovo within the Yugoslav federation ended in riots and the imposition of a state of emergency.

This was deeply ironic because Bakalli's term in office coincided with the most sustained period of improvement for Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority during the 20th century. Kosovo gained extensive autonomy from its Serb rulers in Belgrade; and Pristina, its capital, began to take on the appearance of a modern city - thanks to the inflow of development funds from the more prosperous parts of Yugoslavia.

Though ousted from office at the age of 45, Bakalli remained engaged in politics and at times played an influential role behind the scenes. And more than two decades after he had lost power, he emerged on the international stage as the first of some 300 prosecution witnesses to give evidence against Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav President, on trial on war crimes charges before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Bakalli coped well with Milosevic's overbearing attitude during his cross-examination, although more than once their verbal duel degenerated into a political debate which the judge had to cut short.

A political science graduate from Belgrade University, Bakalli became a lecturer in sociology at a Pristina college in the late 1950s, but his ambition was always to move into politics. He did so through the tried and tested method of the youth wing of the League of Communists - the party that held a monopoly of power in Yugoslavia under the Second World War partisan leader and subsequent President for life, Marshal Josip Broz Tito. By 1961 Bakalli had become the head of Kosovo's Youth Union. Ten year later, he took over as President of Kosovo's League of Communists.

Bakalli's rise to the top of the Kosovo establishment was due, in part, to his inside knowledge of how the Communist bureaucracy worked. Because of his university education in Belgrade, he was a trusted figure among the Serb leadership. Last but not least, he came from the Djakovica (Gjakova to Albanians) area in south-western Kosovo - the home base of Fadil Hoxha and other Kosovar Albanian politicians who had a firm grip on power at the time.

Lobbying from the "Djakovica clan" contributed to Tito's decision to upgrade Kosovo's autonomy in the early 1970s. Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution put the final seal of approval on Kosovo's greatly extended powers of self-government. It also created an anomalous situation: while Kosovo remained an autonomous province of Serbia - one of Yugoslavia's six republics - it also gained direct representation at the federal Yugoslav level where it could, in theory, vote against Serbia.

Bakalli could claim much of the credit for Kosovo's enhanced status. But some of the improvements were only skin-deep and others created their own problems. There was a recurrent - if only semi-serious - complaint at the time that the newly built banks had no money, the impressively modernist university library had no books, and the Grand Hotel that towered over Pristina had no guests.

It was the poor quality of food at the university canteen that prompted student demonstrations in March 1981. A heavy-handed police reaction - opposed by Bakalli - provoked riots. It also led to more radical demands, including the call for Kosovo to be granted the status of a full republic, which was unacceptable to Belgrade because it would have implicitly given Kosovo the right to secede from the Yugoslav federation.

Serbia's leaders blamed Bakalli for having failed to foresee the protests - and for having created the conditions for unrest through an incompetent investment policy that had produced huge numbers of graduates with no job prospects. By June 1981, he had been removed from all his posts in the Kosovo leadership.

Mounting pressure on Kosovo's Albanians - justified on the grounds of harassment of the Serb minority - culminated in Belgrade's abolition, in all but name, of Kosovo's autonomy in 1989. The Serb security crack-down produced its own personal humiliation for Bakalli whose four hunting rifles and pistol were confiscated. Hunting was Bakalli's passion. Visitors to his home would come face-to-face with a stuffed Albanian eagle, a five-foot brown bear and other trophies - as well as signed photos showing him with Tito and other leaders from their hunting trips in the 1970s when Bakalli was part of Yugoslavia's ruling regime.

During the years of Belgrade's direct rule over Kosovo, Bakalli's knowledge of the Serb political establishment made him a valued figure to the Kosovar Albanians' independence-seeking leadership. In May 1998, he accompanied Ibrahim Rugova and other senior figures on a trip to Belgrade in a bid to negotiate with Milosevic a peaceful settlement to the then two-month-old conflict in Kosovo. That attempt failed - as did the internationally mediated talks in Rambouillet, France, in early 1999 which Bakalli also attended.

Milosevic's refusal to accept the Rambouillet accords led to Nato's military intervention which ended the war in Kosovo with the withdrawal of Serb security forces and the establishment of an interim United Nations administration to run the territory. Bakalli, who was elected to Kosovo's parliament in its first free elections in 2001, retained his influence through being one of the founding members of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo - a small party with a strong base in south-western Kosovo that has successfully exploited coalition politics by providing Kosovo's last three prime ministers. At the time of his death Bakalli was an adviser to the Prime Minister, Agim Ceku.

However, outside Kosovo Bakalli will be best remembered for his resilient performance at the Milosevic trial. In perhaps the most valuable part of his testimony, Bakalli insisted that Milosevic had never intended to negotiate seriously with the Kosovar representatives during the abortive talks of 1998. Bakalli also said that Milosevic had admitted to being fully aware of the circumstances surrounding the killings of the Kosovar Albanian rebel Adem Jashari and some 40 members of his family - the incident that had triggered the war. When he challenged Milosevic about why the women and children at the Jashari farm had been killed, Milosevic's terse response was that they had been given two hours to get out.

Long after he lost power, Bakalli remained an important witness to Kosovo's tragic history.

Gabriel Partos

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