Copyright 1998 Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.


SECTION: REVIEWS; Review Essay; Pg. 124
LENGTH: 3900 words

Imagining Kosovo
A Biased New Account Fans Western Confusion

BYLINE: Aleksa Djilas; ALEKSA DJILAS is the author of The Contested
Country: Yugoslav Unity and Communist Revolution, 1919-1953 and the
forthcoming Yugoslavia: Dictatorship and Disintegration. From 1987 to
1994 he was a Fellow at the Russian Research Center at Harvard

Kosovo: A Short History. BY NOEL MALCOLM. New York: New York
University Press, 1998, 492 pp. $ 28.95.

Noel Malcolm's previous books include a biography of a
twentieth-century Romanian violinist and composer, a volume engagingly
called The Origins of English Nonsense, a history of Bosnia, and a
life of a sixteenth-century Venetian heretic who studied rainbows.
Since he seems to select his literary targets at random, it is
tempting to dismiss Malcolm as a popularizer or charlatan. But in
Kosovo: A Short History, Malcolm emerges as a talented amateur
historian, trying hard -- the book has 1,154 endnotes and a
bibliography in a dozen languages -- to produce a serious book about
Serbia's southern province, with its almost 90 percent Albanian
majority. He is only partly successful.

Can there really be a history of Kosovo? Malcolm recognizes at the
outset that there is "something rather artificial about writing the
history of territory, as a unit." But he argues that Kosovo has a
geographical identity and is an important cultural crossroads. Alas,
his account is marred by his sympathies for the Albanians and his
illusions about the Balkans.

Kosovo was a central part of medieval Serbia, and Serbian kings
built magnificent monasteries and churches there, many of which
still survive. Still, Kosovo never had recognized boundaries. In the
mid-fifteenth century, after its conquest by the Ottoman Turks,
it became an ill-defined region within their empire. In the late
nineteenth century, the Ottomans established the vilayet or province
of Kosovo, but it encompassed a rather different territory than
today's Kosovo. Although after the First Balkan War of 1912 it was
again part of Serbia -- called then and now by Serbs Kosovo-Metohija
-- it did not become an autonomous administrative unit. Nor did it
achieve such status after World War I, when Montenegro and the South
Slav provinces of the former Austria-Hungary joined Serbia to form
Yugoslavia, which, until 1929, was officially called the Kingdom of
the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

Only after the defeat of the Nazis in World War II did Kosovo achieve
autonomy. During the war, the communist-led Partisan Army fought
against Germans and other occupiers of Yugoslavia, as well as against
rival Yugoslav military formations. While the Partisans were
multinational and advocated tolerance and federalism, their Yugoslav
foes were extreme nationalists who often collaborated with the fascist
enemy. Some leaders of the Serbian royalist Chetniks, for instance,
planned to "cleanse" the Serbian lands of non-Serbs. Their designs
were foiled in 1945, and Kosovo began receiving self-rule. At first
it was a mere oblast (region), but in 1963 it became a pokrajina
(province), like Vojvodina in Serbia's north. In the early 1970s, the
old Partisan leader, Josip Broz Tito, and his ruling Communist Party
virtually transformed Yugoslavia's federation of six republics
(Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and
Macedonia) into a confederation. For the first time, Kosovo, together
with Vojvodina, achieved a high degree of autonomy and became in some
respects -- such as separate representation in the federal state and
party bodies -- coequal to the republics. These changes were finally
codified in the 1974 constitution, which some constitutional experts
argue conferred on the republics a last-resort right of secession;
no one, however, claims that it accorded such a right to provinces.

Except, implicitly, Malcolm. He sometimes calls ethnic Albanians from
Kosovo "Kosovars," a misnomer often employed by Western journalists
and diplomats. There is no difference between Albanians in Kosovo
and those in Albania, Serbia proper, Montenegro, the Republic of
Macedonia, or Greece. Kosovar identity is as much an artificial
construct as Kosovo itself. It is bizarre to name as Kosovars those
Albanian-speakers who live in Kosovo next to the Albanians border,
while keeping the name Albanians for those who live in Serbia proper,
sometimes more than 60 miles from Albania.

Today Kosovo's approximately 1.8 million Albanians are demanding
independence from Serbia, often with weapons in hand. The appearance
of an almost 500-page-long "short history" of Kosovo calling them
Kosovars can only help their cause. Readers will believe that Kosovo
is a well-established historical-political entity and forget that
Albanians are a minority within Serbia and Yugoslavia and not a
nation, which would have the right to self-determination. Since
Malcolm does not hide his sympathies for the Albanians and their
struggle for independence, this effect was probably deliberate.


Malcolm entered the field of Yugoslav studies with his Bosnia: A Short
History. Published in 1994 in the middle of Bosnia's brutal civil war,
this well-written book was an instant success. Not only did it fill
the gap in Western knowledge about the most central republic of the
former Yugoslavia, it also eloquently championed restoring Bosnia's
unity and reintegrating its Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, who had been
separated by war and ethnic cleansing. Malcolm maintained that Bosnia
had a continuous history for almost a thousand years and was a
distinct geopolitical entity even while incorporated into the Ottoman
Empire, Hapsburg Austria, and Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, many of
his misconceptions about Bosnia persist in his Kosovo sequel.

To Malcolm, it was irrelevant that Bosnia's Serbs and Croats were
primarily loyal to Serbia and Croatia, not Bosnia, since at least the
mid-nineteenth century. He also underestimated how deeply embedded in
each of the three groups' collective memory were several major
interethnic conflicts in the last century or so in which tens of
thousands of civilians were murdered. In 1875, for instance, a major
uprising of Christians against Ottoman rule and the Muslim nobility
caused a major European crisis that led to the convening of the
Congress of Berlin in 1878. During World War II, 400,000 Bosnians out
of a total population of 2.8 million lost their lives -- every sixth
Serb, eighth Croat, and twelfth Muslim. More than half died in
fighting between the three groups. Malcolm, however, preferred to
stress periods of interethnic peace and cooperation. He assailed what
he considered the myth that the current bloodshed was the result of
"ancient ethnic hatreds," a fiction that he claimed was preventing
Western leaders from intervening. Instead, he blamed the bloodletting
on bellicose politicians, especially those in Belgrade. But the
leaders of the three groups, while undoubtedly evil and guilty, could
never have won over large majorities of their peoples for their
chauvinistic designs if the memories of past suffering at the hands
of the others and a hidden thirst for revenge had not been there.

Almost three years have passed since November 1995, when the United
States brokered the Bosnian peace accords at Dayton, Ohio, but Bosnia
is still separated into Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian parts.
Hardly any refugees are returning home, and the common
Muslim-Serbian-Croatian government in Sarajevo meets only when the
West pressures its members. There are now about 34,000 NATO-led
troops, including some 7,000 Americans, policing Bosnia and protecting
the Bosnians from themselves. That the NATO force's departure is far
from sight is a powerful refutation of Malcolm's belief in impending
reintegration and interethnic harmony.


In Kosovo: A Short History, Malcolm is more realistic. He does not
underestimate the importance of differences between Serbs and
Albanians in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion (all Serbs are
Eastern Orthodox, while Albanians are predominantly Muslim, although
some are Catholic or Eastern Orthodox). Kosovo, he concedes, was not
"always a wonderland of mutual tolerance." At the same time, his
starting point is the same as in Bosnia: A Short History -- "ancient
ethnic hatreds" are not the cause of the present conflict. He then
searches obsessively for those rare historical occasions when
Albanians and Serbs fought on the same side rather than against each

But why, then, does Malcolm support Albanian demands for independence?
In Bosnia, he advocates restoring a unitary state. To be consistent,
he would have to demand the reintegration of autonomous Kosovo into
Serbia and the resolution of the Albanian-Serbian conflict through
Albanian participation in Serbia's political life -- giving the same
prescription for Kosovo that he gave for Bosnia.

Malcolm fails to grasp the consequences of his inconsistency. While he
chastised Bosnia's Serbs and Croats for refusing to fight for their
rights in Sarajevo's parliament, he shows great understanding for
Kosovo's Albanians' systematic boycott of elections in Serbia and
Yugoslavia. But Albanian abstentions greatly harmed the Albanian
struggle for their rights and the development of democracy in Serbia
and Yugoslavia. Serbia's nationalistic president, Slobodan Milosevic,
all but extinguished Kosovo's autonomy in 1988 and, as Malcolm
movingly describes, put Kosovo under police rule and fired tens of
thousands of Albanians from state enterprises, the educational system,
the police, and the judiciary. Albanians responded by creating a
parallel political, economic, and educational system and avoiding
military conscription and payment of taxes (their motto could have
been a paraphrase of the slogan of the American Revolution: no
taxation without representation). All Albanian political groups agreed
to accept nothing less than complete independence for Kosovo and under
no circumstances to participate in the political life of Serbia and
Yugoslavia. But if the Albanians had voted, they could have decisively
influenced the presidential elections in Serbia and Yugoslavia, and
their representatives would have made one of the strongest parties in
both parliaments. There they could have successfully fought for their
rights and the restoration of Kosovo's autonomy -- and even, through
alliances with Serbian opposition parties, helped oust Milosevic's


Malcolm claims that the present Albanian-Serbian conflict has its
origins in the First Balkan War of 1912, when the Serbs defeated the
Ottoman army and, as Serbs still say, "liberated Kosovo after five
centuries under the Turkish yoke." According to Malcolm, however,
Kosovo was "conquered"; last May, Secretary of State Madeleine K.
Albright said the Serbs "occupied" it. Malcolm vividly describes
atrocities committed against Albanian civilians by the Serbian army,
its Montenegrin ally, and especially Serbian paramilitaries. Other
participants in the war -- Bulgarians, Greeks, and Turks -- also
committed horrifying crimes against either civilians or prisoners of
war. Serbian atrocities, however, did not create the "systematic
hostility and hatred" between the Albanians and Serbs, but only
exacerbated them. The enmity is rooted in centuries of discrimination
against the Serbian Orthodox Church and oppression of Serbian peasants
by Muslim Albanian lords and their followers -- a point Malcolm
lightly dismisses. He may be right that the main motive of the
Albanian lords was the thirst for power and financial gain, rather
than ethnic or religious bigotry. But the oppression would not have
been possible had there not been ethnic and racial awareness and had
the Serbs not been considered a different and inferior ethnic group.
Religion was even more important. As Bernard Lewis, the historian of
the Middle East, has pointed out, the traditionalOttoman political and
social ethos "had its roots in classical Islamic law and custom, [and]
was based frankly on inequality, since it would be inappropriate and
indeed absurd to accord equal treatment to those who accept God's
final revelation and those who willfully reject it." In the Balkans
and elsewhere in Europe, Islam was often less fanatical than any
Christian confession, but it nevertheless obliged Muslims to
discriminate against other monotheistic religions. In both Kosovo and
Bosnia, which lay on the Ottomans' border with their great enemy,
Catholic Europe, discrimination against Christians was particularly

Even if the causes of the Albanians' plight had been purely political
and economic, the Serbs would still inevitably have perceived both
Islam and Albanians as oppressors and enemies. Analyzing post-1945
operations in Kosovo by the Yugoslav communist secret police, Malcolm
points out that only 13 percent of the officers were Albanian, which
added "to the increasingly bitter sense of ethnic polarization in the
province." Of course it did, because Albanians felt subjected to
alien, colonial rule, as did the Kosovo Serbs during the centuries of
Muslim Albanian rule.


Malcolm was for many years a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph,
which accounts for his lively, even gripping, writing. Unearthing the
roots of the passion with which he tries to demolish most of the
Serbian historical claims to Kosovo is much more difficult. He attacks
the "myths" of Serbian history with particular zeal, including some
that are not myths at all but only somewhat simplified historical
narratives enshrined as symbols in Serbian collective memory.

Such, for example, is the "myth" of cruel and backward Ottoman rule, a
myth that all other Balkan nations except Bosnian Muslims and Muslim
Albanians share with the Serbs. It is indeed wrong, as Malcolm
convincingly argues, to reduce Ottoman rule to barbarism, Muslim
fanaticism, slavery, torture, and the suppression of Christian faith
and national identity. The Turkish authorities, in the first centuries
of their rule, often imposed lighter taxes than previous Christian
rulers, interfered little in the details of everyday life, and made
compromises with Christian churches. Still, the Ottomans and those
inhabitants of the Balkans who converted to Islam had either
monopolistic or privileged positions in political, military, judicial,
and economic affairs, while Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic,
suffered virtual social and political death through their loss of
power and social status. Malcolm writes that "in the last two
centuries of Ottoman power there were many cases of arbitrary rule,
violence, and oppression," but he fails to mention that this was also
true of earlier centuries.

In particular, Malcolm attacks the popular Serbian interpretation of
the 1389 defeat of the Serbs at the hands of the conquering Turks at
the battle of Kosovo Polje, or the Field of Blackbirds. He is, of
course, right to point out that the Serbian army was not purely
Serbian (the Bosnians being their main ally), that the battle was not
a complete defeat for the Serbs, that their state survived well into
the fifteenth century, and that its decline had begun after Emperor
Dusan died in 1355. Yet there is a germ of truth in the popular myth.
The battle was extremely bloody, both the Turkish sultan and the
Serbian prince perished, and the loss contributed significantly to the
final Serbian collapse.

Malcolm believes that nineteenth-century nationalist intellectuals
gave the Kosovo legend its nationalist spin, making it the defining
event of Serbian history. Admittedly, this was the century of European
nationalist revivals, for Italians, Poles, Germans, Greeks, Serbs, and
Albanians, among others. But the nineteenth century only
revolutionized national identities already formed by language,
culture, religion, and, above all, history. The Kosovo battle became
an ineradicable part of Serbian history immediately after 1389.
Literary treatments soon appeared. The Field of Blackbirds inspired
the greatest cycle of Serbian epic poetry, which was full of hope for
the final victory and deliverance. The Homeric grandeur of these poems
so captivated Goethe's imagination that he learned Serbian to be able
to read them.

When Malcolm exposes Serbian historical myths, he actually uses the
arguments of Serbian historians, who had disentangled most myths from
facts by the 1930s. On rare occasions Malcolm really is original, as
when trying to debunk the Serbian "great migration" of 1690. When the
Hapsburg troops fighting the Ottomans were forced to withdraw from
Kosovo, thousands of Serbs who had been on the Hapsburg side followed
them rather than endure Ottoman reprisals. They later settled along
the Hapsburg border, while the Albanians moved from their mountains
into depopulated Kosovo. Malcolm attacks the authenticity of all
elements of this story with perverse eagerness. As Tim Judah, the
author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia,
puts it, in his views about the migration "Malcolm is rather like
someone claiming that the Mayflower sailed from America to Britain or
that Ellis Island had little to do with immigration to the United

Malcolm's biases can also be seen in the fact that, of the 31st
archives and libraries he consulted, none are in Serbia. He failed to
visit the relevant research centers in other Orthodox countries, like
Greece and Bulgaria, restricting himself mostly to Catholic ones,
especially in Italy and Austria. Among the international group of
people thanked in the acknowledgments, there are half a dozen
Albanians but not one Serb.


At the end of his book, Malcolm writes, "Serbia had already lost
Kosovo -- lost it, that is, in the most basic human and demographic
terms." To help resolve the Kosovo problem, the Serbs should recognize
"that the territory conquered in 1912 already had a majority non-Serb
population." In both instances Malcolm is right, although the Serbs
would be more likely to accept his messages if he did not dispense
them with such glee. (Its puckishness aside, Kosovo: A Short History
should be published in Belgrade, where it would provoke a fruitful

The Serbs' minority status in Kosovo has only deepened. In 1912 the
Serbs represented over 40 percent of the population of Kosovo; today
they comprise less than 10 percent. How did that happen? Malcolm
wrongly believes that abortion is a "normality" for Serbian women and
that therefore the Serbs "had only themselves to blame" for being
outnumbered by the Albanians in Kosovo. But Serbian sexual mores and
population growth resemble those of European and other countries where
many secondary school and university students are women (in Serbia,
the figure is more than half). In this respect, the Albanians are
Europe's oddball people. While Malcolm shows little sympathy for
Albanian women, kept in subservience by a traditional, male-dominated
Muslim society, he does admit that with almost seven children per
woman in the villages in the 1980s, the Kosovo Albanians' birth rate
is Europe's highest.

Moreover, many Serbs left Kosovo during World War II and in the 1970s
and 1980s, when Kosovo enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, because
Albanian extremists forced them to -- by murdering, threatening,
taking their jobs and land, killing their cattle, felling their
orchards, and even occasionally attacking their women. Malcolm
underplays these causes for Serbian flight, insisting instead that
Kosovo was simply poor and that better land and jobs were to be found

Despite Malcolm's errors in emphasis, he is right about the poverty.
Kosovo's social and economic problems are so vast that it has to be
granted considerable autonomy simply because Serbia cannot afford to
subsidize it. Rural overpopulation is the main cause of Kosovo's
poverty, but its once rich lead and zinc mines are also being
exhausted. About half of the Albanian work force is unemployed. The
costs of keeping numerous units of the Serbian police and Yugoslav
army in Kosovo to fight Albanian separatism are also huge --
especially after this spring's appearance of the Kosovo Liberation
Army (KLA), a blend of a terrorist organization, a guerrilla force,
and a popular uprising waiting to happen, which fights for the unity
of all Albanians in the Balkans and declares political pluralism a
"luxury." Finally, international sanctions imposed on Serbia for its
repressive policies inflict incalculable economic losses. Serbian
nationalism, it seems, is not only intolerant and bellicose but also
bad for business.

With Belgrade in disfavor, all Western governments demand significant
autonomy for Kosovo (without precisely stating what that means) and
simultaneously insist that Kosovo cannot become independent because
this would violate the borders of Yugoslavia, a sovereign state
protected by the U.N. Charter and other international documents. The
other argument they frequently summon, perhaps implying that the first
one should not be taken too seriously, is that Kosovo's independence
would engender further, potentially catastrophic changes of borders in
the Balkans and its environs. Secessionist Albanians in Macedonia,
Greeks in Albania, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, Hungarians in Romania,
and Kurds in Turkey would be encouraged, while Bulgaria might be
tempted to annex Macedonia, whose Slavic inhabitants it considers
co-nationals. The West seems not to realize that an independent Kosovo
would immediately unite with Albania and upset the precarious balance
between Albania's mutually antagonistic Geg north and Tosk south,
which could restart the 1997 civil war.

Since its meeting in London on June 12, the Contact Group (formed in
1994 to bring peace to Bosnia and consisting of representatives of the
United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy) has
repeatedly demanded -- with Russia the lone dissenter -- that the
Yugoslav army and the special units of the Serbian police, which have
on several occasions used "excessive force," unconditionally and
immediately withdraw from Kosovo. NATO, as well as the United States
on its own, have also threatened military intervention and bombing.
These Western policies not only encouraged the KLA but created deep
divisions in the nonviolent Albanian independence movement.

Egged on by confused, biased writers like Malcolm, Western pressure is
so intense that Kosovo will soon become autonomous. The main problems,
therefore, are preventing the Albanians from seceding once Kosovo's
political institutions are under their control, protecting the Serbs
from being expelled by the triumphant Albanian majority, and keeping
Serbian churches, monasteries, and historical monuments from being
destroyed. The solution, if there is still time for one, must include
some autonomy inside Kosovo for majority-Serbian regions and the most
sacred Serbian holy sites, which together comprise about a quarter of
Kosovo; an end to Albanians' boycott of elections and their rejoining
the political life of Serbia and Yugoslavia; permanent stationing of
numerous Western civilian and military observers; and a slow,
Western-monitored transfer of the police from Serbian to Albanian
hands, with perhaps a third of positions always remaining Serbian as
a safety guarantee. But before a constructive debate can begin,
Albanians must halt their militancy, Serbs must abandon their
intransigence, and the West must outgrow its confusions -- not
necessarily in that order.