In This Review

Kosovo: War and Revenge
Kosovo: War and Revenge
By Tim Judah
Yale University Press, 2000, 336 pp.
Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond
Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond
By Michael Ignatieff
Henry Holt, 2000, 249 pp.
The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999.
The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999.
By Misha Glenny
Viking Penguin, 2000, 726 pp.

Western policy toward eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has been a vast improvisation since communism's collapse. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the Balkans. In the 1995 Dayton Accord, the West ratified the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina by failing to commit resources to Dayton's most important civilian mandate, the return of refugees. The very negotiations at Dayton depended on the promotion, enhancement, and legitimization of the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, the primary engineer of the Bosnian war. The results were a divided Bosnia and inevitable turmoil in Kosovo. In spring 1999, NATO fought a war in Kosovo without any plan to budge Milosevic from power, thereby ensuring that his grip over Serbia became stronger than ever. Meanwhile, the West continues to hold Montenegro and Kosovo back from independence, even though both will likely be future battlegrounds.

Given the West's inability -- or unwillingness -- to grasp the realities of the current Balkan scene, fresh accounts on Balkan history, including reevaluations of the most recent Kosovo developments, should be welcomed. Now three writers have tackled the subject in different ways, with mixed results. Misha Glenny provides an account of the last two centuries of Balkan history but in a highly contemporary key, Tim Judah continues his study of Serbian politics with a judicious account of the Kosovo issue, and Michael Ignatieff offers his own version of what the NATO action in Kosovo meant in the annals of modern warfare.


Glenny's work is lowbrow history on a grand scale. A master scriptwriter, Glenny has produced a book that could easily be broken into a series of Hollywood romances. As befits the genre, the narrative has little original interpretation. Instead, in a show of directorial fancy, he carefully blocks out the entrances and exits of the notable names of Balkan history: Karadjordje Petrovic, the leader of the first Serbian uprising against the Turks in 1804; the great nineteenth-century statebuilders (Nikola Pasic, Stefan Stambolov, and Eleutherios Venizelos -- but, curiously, not Ion Bratianu); the royal dictators of the interwar period (King Zog, Aleksandar Karadjordjevic, Boris III, and Carol II); and finally the communist dictators (Enver Hoxha, Tito, and Nicolae Ceausescu).

Glenny's views are not as Serbocentric as some critics have charged. Were he Serbocentric in earnest, he would have given some prominence to such antihegemonist Serbs as Svetozar Markovic and Dimitrije Tucovic, or perhaps to such uncompromising anti-Milosevic figures as Latinka Perovic, the leader of Serbia's liberal Communists who was purged in 1972, or Bogdan Bogdanovic, the former mayor of Belgrade. He would have said something about the Serbian Orthodox church, including its seminal figures of the twentieth century: Nikolaj Velimirovic and Justin Popovic. But that would have meant a focus on ideas -- and one cannot make a movie out of ideas.

It would be exhausting to cite everything missing in Glenny. Definitions are missing, including the most crucial one: What are the Balkans -- an area of the Ottoman Empire's legacy? If so, what is the legacy? Ideologies and social thought are missing. The first noun in the subtitle -- "nationalism" -- is never defined or analyzed; it is merely assumed. The same can be said of liberalism, socialism, communism, and fascism. This history of the modern Balkans does not even discuss the nature of partisan conflict, other than in terms of foreign patronage. Glenny deems Yugoslavia's King Aleksandar important, but he never mentions his political decisions, like the creation of the banovinas in 1929 that redrew the borders of the country's historical provinces. Religion, politics, society, and culture are missing. Whole nations (Slovenia) and movements (Nationalist Youth, Orthodoxism) are missing. Glenny has produced a history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Balkans with no reference to Petar II Petrovic-Njegos, Montenegro's great poet and prince-bishop. Indeed, there are hardly any references to Montenegro itself.

Despite a few references in the bibliography, Glenny also fails to refer to some of the most notable contemporary scholars of the Balkan countries, including those writing in Western languages. He discusses Macedonia -- one of his favorite subjects -- without referring to the works of such specialists as Fikret Adanir, John D. Bell, Anastasia Karakasidou, Andrew Rossos, or Stefan Troebst. This cannot be a result of ignorance; Glenny uses many more obscure texts by lesser-known authors. Rather, it is a result of choice. Glenny's favorite sources are travelers, soldiers, diplomats, and journalists like himself -- colorful and quotable types.

But this approach is no excuse for sloppiness. Take the case of the revolution of 1848 in Croatia. Here Glenny draws on the wonderfully literary synthesis by the writer Josip Horvath, written before World War II. There is nothing wrong with that, even though Glenny seems to be aware of the far more authoritative postwar works by the Croat historian Jaroslav Sidak. But Glenny's use of Horvath is quite creative. He first quotes Horvath's own citation from the diary of Baron Josip Neustadter, a Croatian general and a friend of Josip Jelacic, the loyalist Hapsburg viceroy of Croatia. He follows by throwing a Horvath sentence into the supposed Neustadter quote. The next sentence is Glenny's paraphrase of the following Horvath sentence. And then he quotes Jelacic from Horvath -- without attribution.

Indeed, the entire text is marred by geographical errors, misspellings, and biographical inaccuracies. Ivan Pernar, a Croat Peasant Party deputy whom this reviewer met in 1960, is recorded as having been assassinated in 1928; the central Turkish city of Kayseri becomes a district of Istanbul; the son of the Comintern leader Georgi Dimitrov is noted as having been killed in World War II when in fact he died of diphtheria in 1943. The examples run on.

What remain in the book are mostly descriptions of wars, massacres, and great-power meddling. Glenny claims that "consistently and conspicuously absent from Western reflections on the Balkans since the latter half of the nineteenth century has been any consideration of the impact of the West itself on the region." He evidently aims to correct this mistake, as he sees it. But little in this enormous book, except for occasional homilies, suggests an original account of the relationship between the great powers and the Balkans. Glenny's recounting of the great powers' maneuvering before World War I, for example, adds nothing fresh to the literature. Nor is it news that Soviet diplomats -- like Grigory Popov, Stalin's military mission chief in Athens -- could be as cold-blooded as any other imperialist.

Glenny's central argument is that the Balkans have constantly suffered from great-power interference. He cites the 1878 Congress of Berlin, World War I and its aftermath, and World War II as particularly egregious examples of how Western intervention can backfire. Exactly how these events went wrong is not spelled out -- except in the last instance, in reference to the Nazi-sponsored genocide throughout the Balkans. Was the 1878 Congress of Berlin wrong because it upset the rise of Greater Bulgaria? Was it wrong that Serbia and Romania expanded after 1918? If so, what was the alternative? Was the 1912 establishment of Albania a mistake? Should one assume that the imperialisms of the Balkan states are innately wiser than those of western Europe? Glenny has in fact broadened his criticism of Western intervention in the Balkans of the 1990s to make a case against all outside interference in the last two centuries. But his historical research is too limited to back up his sweeping claim.

Although reputedly a Yugoslav specialist, Glenny is weakest on the history of Yugoslavia. His account becomes less substantial as it discusses the 1960s, but it is the least adequate on the post-Tito 1980s and the rise of Milosevic. This enormously important and complicated period is reduced to a handful of events: the Pristina demonstrations of 1981 (although the larger issue of Kosovo's status is ignored); a paragraph on the economic difficulties of the mid-1980s; two promising but bland paragraphs on the Serbian Academy's Memorandum, which presaged the rise of new Serb nationalism; and finally, war's outbreak in 1991. In fact, Glenny offers no analysis of how the Titoist system contributed to the making and the unmaking of Yugoslavia. Likewise, he reduces the series of wars after 1991 to their Bosnian part, notably to the movement around the Milosevic-Tudjman vortex and the reactive (and inadequate) actions of the great powers. Bosnia was indeed the most important aspect of these wars, but Glenny overlooks the fact that the wars were driven by the ideological determination to build ethnically homogenous states and create a firm border between Serbia and Croatia. To accomplish this, Bosnia had to be destroyed.

Glenny is right to challenge NATO's claims to morality in the most recent Kosovo intervention -- and to argue that NATO's moral victory will ultimately depend on postintervention reconstruction and recovery. But he never addresses the more important issue: whether the West can be expected to protect the Balkans' unique traditions of religious pluralism if the West itself has lost its premodern, religious moorings. Nor does he ask whether this is a Western problem at all.


Tim Judah's graceful book is less ambitious but more analytical and better researched than Glenny's. He concentrates on Kosovo from 1912, when it was incorporated into Serbia, to the present: the Milosevic era, Ibrahim Rugova's "phantom state" of the 1990s (and corresponding developments in the other ex-Yugoslav lands), the rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and the new wave of Milosevic terror ending with nato's intervention last year. Everything worth knowing about contemporary Kosovo is included in this evenhanded book. Judah even discusses the emerging monopolistic policies of the KLA chieftain Hashim Thaci -- a trend that began with anti-Serb revanchism and will probably end with the repression of liberal Kosovar Albanians, perhaps under the noses of NATO peacekeeping troops.

Judah also clearly defines the meaning of Kosovo for the Serbs. Because compromise with the Kosovar Albanians was never an option before the war and force emerged as the only solution, Serbia had to choose between "Kosovo or democracy." The failure to find a solution to this dilemma, especially after the NATO bombing campaign, means that Serbia now has neither. The equivalent failure of Kosovar Albanians could mean that they will have Kosovo but no democracy -- or security.

Michael Ignatieff has written a book on the Kosovo war that is as engaging as Judah's but not as discerning. Ignatieff was there, and his reporting is as vivid and moving as his portraits of the leading figures -- U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, Judge Louise Arbour of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and others. The victims are not forgotten, and neither are the voices with opposing views, like the Serb writer Aleksa Djilas. Ignatieff favored the NATO intervention, but he uses his book to reexamine its merits.

Ignatieff investigates the Kosovo war using the concept of "virtuality" -- the generated appearance of reality when something is invented and appears in three dimensions but does not really exist. In this case, Ignatieff is interested in the opposite process: making something real appear less so. A virtual war is fought so that as few people as possible actually notice its reality. Such a war presupposes several things: that new kinds of weapons are used, that casualties on "our" side must be avoided, and that the cause must be presented as just -- without having to mobilize or even interest the whole nation. In this "postmodern war," communications are not cut off. A New Yorker can easily keep in touch with friends in Belgrade, the population in the targeted country indulges in elaborate spectacles for CNN, and so on. The eponymous chapter of the book is couched in the language of political and military decisions, ignoring the contributions to the virtuality debate previously introduced by the Paris-based theorists Jean Baudillard and Paul Virilio. Ignatieff also ignores the real issue -- what this type of armed intervention actually achieved. Milosevic, like Saddam Hussein, remains in power and perhaps has not yet played his last Kosovo card.

All three authors are British-based journalists. Some are better, some are worse, but none is really involved. In his first chapter, Judah notes that "these parts of the Balkans were well covered by journalists and travelers from Britain" a century ago. Today all three seem to carry on this same spectator sport in which the natives are observed and analyzed. But at the beginning of a new century, this wounded region requires more than detached analysis.

What most observers ignore is that the reconstruction of Bosnia holds the key for overall regional recovery. While Kosovo gets attention in the headlines, the press overlooks the nuts and bolts of economic development in Bosnia and the daily battles against the ruling ethnic cleansers who continue to frustrate refugee return and the most elementary legal reforms. Last year's Stability Pact has been nothing but a photo opportunity, without any teeth or credibility, despite its promises of security and economic aid.

On an even larger scale, the whole area desperately needs a new vision after Western intervention. Such a vision would require the independence of all the former federal units of Yugoslavia -- but it would also require cohesion within a larger regional scheme that includes a customs union, a multilateral security system, and freedom of travel and information. This is impossible as long as Milosevic is in power. His regime caps two centuries of ethnic forest fires that have destroyed the Balkans' complex multiethnicity. Indeed, this task is impossible as long as the general Balkan national-revolutionary model, which seeks to establish nationally homogeneous states, remains credible. That model started with the Serbian uprisings of the early nineteenth century and has now nearly run its bloody course, destabilizing and undoing the complex structures of old Bosnia, old Croatia, and old Kosovo. Western leaders and many Balkan experts have no sense of loss over this. In that sense, they are truly "modern." Hence the emptiness of debates against "essentializing" the Balkans and the spurious arguments of those who argue that the region's woes stem from "ancient ethnic hatreds." Still, the dearth of hope -- which is evident in all these books -- is the greatest loss.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Ivo Banac is Bradford Durfee Professor of History and Chair of the Council on European Studies at Yale University.
  • More By Ivo Banac