Noel Malcolm's previous books include a biography of a twentieth-century Romani an 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 Albanian 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 other.

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 socialists.


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 traditional Ottoman 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 harsh.

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 States."

Malcolm's biases can also be seen in the fact that, of the 31 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 controversy.)

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 elsewhere.

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.

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  • 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 University.
  • More By Aleksa Djilas