Reviews: Malcolm and Judah on Kosovo

In addition to the interviews, focus groups, and surveys I have been conducting since I arrived here in Serbia, I have also been catching up on my Balkan politics-related reading. Two books of note I have recently completed are Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: A Short History and Tim Judah’s Kosovo: War and Revenge.

Although Malcolm’s Short History is anything but short, for a region with as complex and contentious a history as Kosovo, that he managed to present a readable and seemingly balanced account in only 492 pages is laudable. As I am not a historian, I admit that I am in no position to judge the historical accuracy of the intricate details of Malcolm’s account. Indeed, the book has been subject to considerable criticism by Serbian academia and his account of recent history (published in 1999 before the end of the Kosovo war) is quite truncated. It moreover is obviously unsympathetic to the contemporary Serbian narrative in Kosovo and almost entirely uncritical of the Albanian one.

What Short History lacks in contemporary objectivity, it compensates for in challenging Serb nationalist historical narratives, particularly Kosovo as the “cradle of Serbian civilization,” the 1389 Battle of Kosovo as the center of the Serbian national consciousness, and the Great Migration of Serbs to what is now Vojvodina as much smaller and less organized than traditional narratives suggest. See a bit more in another review here. Malcolm spends considerably less energy addressing Albanian nationalist narratives of Kosovo arguing that this is because there are simply fewer narratives to challenge. His primary contribution to the discussion here is demonstrating how problematic the link is between contemporary Albanians and the ancient Illyrians from which modern Kosovo Albanians nationalist claim to have descended thereby establishing a historically prior and original claim to Kosovo.

Malcolm moreover asserts that while understanding the particularities of history are important, they should have no bearing on the resolution of contemporary conflict. Although his sentiment is perhaps a positive way forward in the Balkans with its troubled and complex history, it is altogether utopian. He seems to assume that by revealing historical “truths”, this will change the way that Serbs (and perhaps Albanians) think about the conflict today. What he does not appear to understand is that by denying the historical accuracy of these central narratives, he also seems to deny the cultural legitimacy of Serbian identity.

In fact for many Serbs, that Albanians have fewer narratives to challenge is precisely the point. Whatever the historical “truth” of their narratives (and indeed many still believe that the “official” versions are true), to Serbs it appears that Kosovo plays a much less important role in the formative Albanian national consciousness. This perspective does problematically deny the differences which have developed between Albanians in Kosovo and Albania “proper” and that national identity based on more recent historical tropes are less legitimate. Such approaches are undoubtedly anathemas to conflict resolution but conversely denying the cultural importance of Serb narratives is no more helpful.

As problematic as the book’s political overtones is its failure to provide a serious study of recent history leading up to the book’s publication. Perhaps Malcolm should not be faulted for such a short account of the 1980s and 1990s, a mere 20 year stretch in a study which covers nearly 700 years. However, criticism of Kosovo Albanian nationalism, whether in its manifestation of quite open cooperation with the Nazis in the Second World War or in its treatment of Kosovo Serbs and on again, off again support of Greater Albanianism is notably absent. Coupled with Malcolm’s harsh criticism of Serb Chetnik’s on again, off again cooperation with the Nazis against the Communist Partisans and the ideology of Greater Serbia, Serb critics cannot be blamed for their instinctual rejection of the book’s other, quite laudable, achievements.

Indeed, Malcolm’s fairly in-depth treatment of the larger historical narrative makes Short History a very important read for any serious scholar of Balkan history and politics. To fill the gap of contemporary analysis, however, one must turn elsewhere. It is here where Tim Judah’s Kosovo: War and Revenge makes a critical contribution. Published in 2000 shortly after the Kosovo War with a second edition released in 2002, Judah offers only a brief survey of the vast swath of Kosovo history and here only as a means to understand how these narratives have been employed by Serb and Albanian nationalists in service of their political agendas.

Like many other works, War and Revenge offers a familiar critical view of the Milosevic regime up to and immediately following the 1999 Kosovo War. Judah tells the story of Milosevic’s rise to power from bureaucrat to nationalist demagogue; how he manipulated the political institutions of post-Tito Yugoslavia and the emotions of Serbs, particularly those in Kosovo, frustrated by the increasing assertiveness and occasional, though largely disorganized, violence of Kosovo Albanian nationalists against Serbs. Here too, he does not neglect the causes of Albanian resentment. He details the Serb republic’s discrimination against Albanians in public office and private employment, attempts to settle Serbs in Kosovo at the expense of Albanian land claims, and efforts to suppress Albanian political organization and protest demanding national self-determination within (and often without) Yugoslavia. 

He also offers detailed accounts of the negotiations between the United States, Serbia, and representatives of the Kosovo Albanians leading up to the 1999 Kosovo War. In particular, he recounts how powerless Serb negotiators actually were, in that Milosevic remained the final and often sole authority in determining what the Serbian contingent could propose or offer at Rambouillet. As much as possible, he also reconstructs the strategic logic and thinking of Milosevic and top American decision-makers in the lead up to and commencement of the air war. The picture which emerges is one in which both sides were convinced that the war would be short and the other side would collapse or fracture before their demands could be implemented.

Judah also pulls no punches in detailing Serbian atrocities against Kosovo Albanians both before and during the Kosovo War. In short, Judah is no Serbian or Milosevic apologist. Yet the author is also not afraid to offer a more complex picture of the Serbian side of the war, particularly highlighting the role of pro-peace Serbs such as the monks at Visoki Decani in protecting civilians and in challenging the veracity of numerous killings attributed to particularly retreating Serb forces at the end of the war.

War and Revenge’s most important contribution, however, is in offering a critical account of the rise and character of Kosovo Albanian nationalism and the actions and objectives of its political leadership. Not only does Judah challenge an image of a uniform Kosovo Albanian front in opposing Serbian control, with important splits existing between the leadership of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Kosovo Albanian president Ibrahim Rugova, and other factions, but he confronts the popular image that the KLA and other armed groups were entirely blameless in the violence.

Reading War and Revenge, one gets a clearer understanding of how the KLA and even average Kosovo Albanians engaged in violence and intimidation against their Kosovo Serb neighbors before, during, and especially after the war. Judah relates this narrative not, as some might expect, to excuse Serbian violence, but to offer a truly full picture of the conflict. Indeed, whatever crimes including ethnic cleansing that were committed by Serbia in Kosovo before and during the war, the ethnic cleansing inflicted against Kosovo’s Serbs at the close of the war, often under the watchful eye of international peacekeepers, can hardly be excused as a legitimate act of revenge.

The so-called March Pogrom of 2004 in which Kosovo Albanians forced 4000 Serbs from their homes, and desecrated, damaged, or destroyed 935 Serb homes, 10 public facilities, and 35 Orthodox churches, again while international forces remained largely passive, speaks strongly to revenge attacks being far from the isolated “understandable but unfortunate” acts of reprisal as described in 1999. Rather than burying the legacy of history, Judah’s sober assessment is that we should be wary of imposed solutions. “While the Albanians can take their revenge today, the time may come when Serbs can take theirs.” Although War and Revenge does not necessarily offer a way forward, it takes an important step in insisting that the whole story be told. While Short History brings us some of the way, we need War and Revenge to continue the journey.

One Response to Reviews: Malcolm and Judah on Kosovo

  1. “While the Albanians can take their revenge today, the time may come when Serbs can take theirs.” This part is something of which Albanian political leaders are oblivious. Or maybe just don’t care what might happen to their nation in times to come. They exercise their power under the wings of some stronger ally, but once the ally leaves this theater (and these things happen through the history), they’ll be left alone, among Balkan nations who either don’t like them, or feel something even worse. And then, I fear, another round of reprisals and revenge might take place. I think, if their political elite really wants to do something for it’s people and think they’re up for the job, they should somehow ‘cool their heads’ and prepare themselves for peaceful and respectful living with other nations. Because, we’re not going anywhere. We might get wiped out from Kosovo, but we’ll still be in the neighbourhood. And then, we’ll come back for what we claim is ours.
    On the other note, read this guy: He seems to be objective in what he writes.

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