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New series no. 4 June-July 1998
Myths and reality
Branka Magas reviews Kosovo: A Short History
by Noel Malcolm
Macmillan, London, 504pp, £20.

Of all the Balkan myths currently in circulation, the most destructive is the one about the Yugoslav wars stemming from 'centuries of ethnic hatred'. It was launched by Milosevic's propaganda machine to mobilize the Serbs, by persuading them that other Yugoslavs were their mortal enemies and they could survive only by separating along ethnic lines and forming a state of their own with new boundaries. In 1989 a celebration of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo was held in a Croatian village also called Kosovo (the toponym is common in the western Balkans), hundreds of miles away from Serbia but lying close to the town of Knin which, in 1991, would have the misfortune of being chosen by Belgrade to become the capital of 'Republika Srpska Krajina', the westernmost outpost of a projected Greater Serbia. A Serb Orthodox bishop told the crowd assembled before a makeshift altar, on which a large photograph of Slobodan Milosevic stood next to the cross: 'The God to whom we belong has once again given our people the chance it gambled away in 1918 [by joining Yugoslavia]: to fence off its home and fulfil the centuries-old covenant of unity of all Serb lands.' A local psychiatrist, then doubling as leader of the Croatian Serbs, described the Serb destiny in words that were by now common currency: 'Serb suffering is a historical constant. Ever since Kosovo the Serbs have known nothing but suffering. Only God's justice has saved the Serbs from total destruction and oblivion. In each and every century hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of the best Serbs have paid with their lives for their loyalty to their nation and faith. Over the past six centuries the Serb people has lived under the constant threat of annihilation.'

Astonishingly, this great lie about 'ancient ethnic hatred' became popular also in the West, where it was promoted by politicians unwilling to contemplate any strong action against Milosevic and his generals. A score of regional 'experts' suddenly emerged to provide the myth with an experiential or scholarly foundation. Some argued that 'ancient ethnic hatred' had been initially dormant during the Communist period until it was fanned by republican leaders determined to stay in power, while others insisted that it was there all along but Communism had placed a 'lid' upon it. All agreed, however, that the parties to the conflict - the ethnic collectivities named Serbs, Croats, Muslims, etc. - were equally to blame for the wars of 1991-5; and that, in view of the ethnic nature of these, it would be improper if not downright impossible to do anything about them. An uninformed Western public soon found itself unable to disentangle the arguments supplied by politicians in pursuit of pragmatic aims from those supplied by academics and other pundits. The myth thus became accepted wisdom, and as such not only disguised reality but came also actively to shape it. Thus in early 1992 the European Union leaders accepted the view that Bosnia's problems derived from 'ancient ethnic hatred' rather than Serbia's expansionism; they consequently sought a solution not in forestalling or halting Serbian aggression, but in dividing the country under attack into ethnic units. The result was a lengthy 'peace process', during which EU representatives drew and redrew 'entity' borders and haggled over territorial percentages and constitutional relationships. When in the summer of 1993 they endorsed a settlement called the Owen-Stoltenberg Plan, which would have involved Bosnia's outright partition along lines established by 'ethnic cleansing', the earlier antinomy between reality and myth was firmly resolved in favour of the latter. If Western policy towards Bosnia was to change, the myth of 'centuries of ethnic hatred' had to be confronted head on. Noel Malcolm's Bosnia: A Short History, written at the height of the Bosnian war, did precisely that.

Today, as Serbia's onslaught against Kosovo gathers momentum, there is a danger that another myth may take hold of the Western mind: namely that Serbia's rule over this former Yugoslav province is historically and legally valid. Kosovo: A Short History could thus hardly be better timed. What the author has done is straightforward if breathtaking: he has simply read everything published on the subject of Kosovo and its surroundings in all the languages that chronicle this area; and where these sources have proved inadequate he has supplemented them by conducting his own research in the archives and libraries of Europe and the United States. The result is a superb work of historical scholarship, its excellence enhanced by the author's enviable ability to present his findings in a manner accessible to a very broad audience.

The combination of meticulous research and linguistic skills has provided Malcolm with a commanding vantage-point from which to examine and cross-examine differing and conflicting historical evidence. In the Balkans, as elsewhere, the past speaks to us in a multiplicity of languages, each recounting the story in its own way: it is the author's sensitivity not just to gross distortions but also to the finest of nuances that has enabled him to dismantle so effectively the historical myths through which both Serbs and Albanians view Kosovo today. It is the Serb Kosovo myth, in particular, that has bedeviled not only Serb-Albanian relations but also those between the Serbs and other South Slavs. Yugoslavia's dissolution has inevitably led to a re-examination and re-interpretation of the history of the states and peoples that once composed it, and it is of considerable importance for the democratic evolution of the entire area that the past be freed from old myths if it is to become resistant to the imposition of new ones. Malcolm has thus written a book of great value not only to readers in the West, but perhaps still more to those who live in the Balkans. Viewed from the local angle, indeed, Kosovo: A Short History does the greatest service of all to the Serbs.

A myth functions by selecting from the past those events that are deemed important and remoulding them to form a simple and coherent story. The Kosovo myth tells us that Kosovo was the cradle of the Serb national state and church, and the heartland of a flourishing empire which the Turks destroyed in 1389; that Serb defeat at the battle of Kosovo amounted to a national catastrophe, since the loss of statehood led to centuries of enslavement by the Turks; that Kosovo remained ethnically a Serb territory until the end of the 17th century, when most Serbs left it, retreating with a defeated Habsburg army; that at the invitation of the Emperor the Kosovo Serbs, led by their Patriarch, settled in southern Hungary (in what became Vojvodina); that the land they had abandoned was then settled by Albanians. Malcolm shows this story to be false, albeit based on real historical events: Kosovo was not the cradle of the Serbian state or church; the mediaeval Serbian empire broke up well in advance of the Kosovo battle of 1389; the Serbian state did not immediately disappear, but survived for another seventy years; the Serbs were not enslaved, but as Ottoman subjects enjoyed considerable rights as did their church; the 17th century migration did not involve most Kosovo Serbs; those who did travel north were not led by their Patriarch; the Emperor did not invite them to move north, but actually asked them to stay in Kosovo.

As the author notes in his book, to call an ideologically charged story a myth 'is not to suggest that everything in it is false, but rather to indicate the talismanic way in which it operates.' The Serb national tragedy has lain in the fact that Serbia's advance to independent statehood in the 19th century entailed the creation of a national identity centred on the Kosovo myth. One of its functions was to unite the Serbs allegedly scattered across the Balkans as a result of the lost battle, by providing them with a common, indeed glorious, history different from, and in conflict with, those of their neighbours. The myth's other important function was to support Serbia's claim to territories lying outside Serbia: to Kosovo, the Sandzak of Novi Pazar and Macedonia in 1912; to Vojvodina, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and much of Croatia in 1914. Yugoslavia's disintegration, as we have seen, revived these claims. The Kosovo myth thus encodes Serbia's hegemonic ambitions in the Balkans: thwarted in Croatia in 1991 and in Bosnia in 1995, their concentrated fury is now being unleashed in Kosovo itself.

The main problem, however, lies not in the myth's aggressive message to others, but in what it has done to the Serbs themselves, particularly those living outside Serbia. Used as mere pawns (and not for the first time) in the Greater Serbian game, tens of thousands of Croatian and Bosnian Serbs have lost their lives or been maimed and brutalized at Belgrade's behest, while hundreds of thousands now live the miserable lives of refugees. Today, as the 20th century draws to a close, Serbia is living in the firm grip of an ancient past, oblivious to all reality. Its misery is due, however, not to losing Kosovo in 1389 but to regaining it six centuries later. Malcolm's book spells out just how dubious Serbia's claims to Kosovo are. Kosovo's case for independence, by contrast, is far better established - indeed, it is unanswerable. Whether Kosovo will gain that independence in the near future is as yet an open question, but there can be no doubt that continuing possession of the former Yugoslav province greatly harms Serbia itself. Only by losing Kosovo can Serbia become a normal country able to live in peace with its neighbours, and the Serbs finally be freed from the tyranny of a mythologized past. As someone once said in relation to another kind of unfreedom: they have nothing to lose but their chains.

A shorter version of this review appeared in The Tablet, 13 June 1998

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