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Book Review

Coherent framework for understanding Kosova beyond Serbian myths

Iqbal Siddiqui

KOSOVO - A SHORT HISTORY by Noel Malcolm. Published by Macmillan London Ltd, London, UK, 1998. pp: 492 (inc. notes, bibliography and index). Hbk: UK 20.00.

The first point any informed reader will note about this book is that Malcolm uses the Serbian form ‘Kosovo’ throughout in preference to the Albanian form ‘Kosova’, used by Kosovars themselves. As in the Bosnian case, the use of terminology in discussing Kosova is politically sensitive. It is notable on the BBC and other radio stations that many commentators sympathetic to the Kosovars use ‘Kosova’ with exaggerated emphasis - ôk’so-VAö - to make the point.

Most journalists, and the print media, however, stick religiously to ‘Kosovo’, the logic being that this is the most common and, therefore, neutral, English-language usage. Malcolm explains his choice of usage by the same logic, which may disappoint some readers. With most of the western media, one suspects that their usage reflects a sub-conscious pro-Serb bias; Malcolm’s previous work and the quickest look through this, however, are sufficient to exonerate him on this count.

Linguistic and terminological considerations apart, the very task of writing the history of these regions is loaded with dangers. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting at which some senior Albanian personages were also present. The meeting organizers invited one of them to say a few words, as the Kosova issue was hot news at the time. While the audience eagerly anticipated some insight into the true situation on the ground in Drenica, our learned brother started, much to everyone’s confusion, with the history of the ancient Illyrians. It was some time before we realized that his object was to demonstrate that Albanians had inhabited the region now called Kosova before the Serbs had. This was the only point he had to make.

This Albanian Kosovar concern for history is a defensive reaction to the Serbian emphasis on history as a basis and justification for their nationalism. The extent to which Serb nationalists re-wrote Serbian history during the last century, to justify and promote their campaign against the Ottoman empire, has been well documented in writings about the background to the war in Bosnia, most notably in Malcolm’s own earlier book, Bosnia - A Short History.

Others, like Norman Cigar in his Genocide in Bosnia, have shown how these historic myths have been twisted and exploited in recent times to provoke and justify some of the worst atrocities ever seen. Their victims, in turn, have also created historic myths to justify their counter position to Serb nationalism. Bosnians and Albanian alike have fallen into this trap. Any perusal of literature on Balkan affairs indicates the reach of these myths and the remarkable extent to which they have influenced and infiltrated the work of even disinterested writers.

Part of these myths’ appeal is their simplicity. They provide obvious and straightforward explanations for historic events or trends (real or invented) which sound convincing to the uninformed and are difficult to refute without detailed knowledge. Decades of work by nationalist ‘intellectuals’ have built up an impressive corpus of pseudo-academic literature which convinces by its sheer volume and is used to underpin further embellishments to the myth. Indeed, such is the credibility of this literature that even the enemies of Serbian nationalism often find themselves arguing against its lies within its own false framework, instead of reaching beyond it to highlight historic realities and so refute the corpus as a whole.

Indeed, the simplicity of many of these myths should be a sign of their shallowness rather than their truth. Reality is invariably more complicated than invention; there are few straightforward truths and uncomplicated facts in real life or in history. Malcolm’s strength, in both his history of Bosnia and in this book, lies in bringing out and explaining the more complex factors behind apparently simple truths, in such a way that the truth appears obvious and myths - previously so convincing - obviously implausible.

The real accuracy of his accounts and explanations can only be gauged by checking against his ample notes and references; however, the balance of his writing and the clear evidence that he neither favours any party, nor seems to be biased against any, suggest that he is genuinely impartial. While no-one can claim to be vindicated from his analysis, for no-one emerges unscathed from Malcolm’s account of what has been a turbulent period in a troubled region, nor can anyone reasonably claim that any other party has been too lightly treated either. That perhaps is reason enough for congratulating a writer in the circumstances.

Balance apart, there is also genuine depth in Malcolm’s work. While many books addressing the background of contemporary issues tend to skim lightly over the historic background, often doing little more than synthesizing others’ works (even others’ syntheses), Malcolm’s book is clearly based on a massive amount of primary research. This is reflected in the detail and conviction of his analyses and the measured balance of his judgements. While considering and deconstructing the versions of history which others have sought to promote, he goes beyond merely debunking myths to provide a convincing and coherent alternative framework for understanding historic geo-political developments in the region and the background to the present troubles.

An example of this can be seen in his discussion of the Battle of Kosovo Pale in 1389, which is the cornerstone of the Serb nationalist mythology. Malcolm considers is in the context of the times, showing that it was neither the main cause of the disintegration of the Serbian empire, which had begun far earlier due to internal pressures, nor the beginning of a dark age for the Serbian people, who continued to rule themselves, albeit under Turkish suzerainty, for over 50 more years. Malcolm then shows how the myth of the battle was gradually developed over subsequent centuries, largely as an Orthodox Christian cult, and that the main features in the contemporary version of the story, with its emotional attachment to Kosova, emerged only in the last century.

As was the case in his book on Bosnia, Malcolm is also strong in considering the Ottoman period. While others have viewed this as a time of unmitigated bad government, hence the movements for ‘national independence’ which emerged in the nineteenth century, Malcolm is more sympathetic and considerate. He is at pains to point out that, contrary to the traditional view of Ottoman rule as oppressive and barbaric, ‘The Ottoman government of the Balkans in its early years (that is until the end of the sixteenth century) was a well- regulated system of rule, and the conditions of life it produced compared favourably in many ways with those of the rest of Europe.’

He also emphasizes that non-Muslims in particular were not discriminated against as the traditional Islamic millet system, when it was properly implemented, treated them better than religious minorities were ever treated in western Europe. Such problems which did occur tended to be class-based rather than religious, with Christians and Muslims alike resenting the sometimes incompetent or harsh rule of local rulers, many of whom were Christian.

Even in the nineteenth century, Malcolm further points out, when the Ottoman system was in desperate need of reform after decades of stagnation, the popular resentment which built up in the Balkan areas was against local rulers who resisted Ottoman attempts at reform, rather than against the Ottomans in Istanbul, who tried repeatedly to address many of the problems local people were facing: ‘In order to implement any of these reforms, however, it was necessary for the central administration in Istanbul to win back real power from the local lords who had usurped it in most provinces of the Empire. And the move to centralize power, while it may have been the strategic ally of a liberalization programme, was sometimes indistinguishable at the tactical level from sheer brutal oppression.’

No-one would doubt that incompetence and political illegitimacy fatally undermined the Ottomans’ rule. But they were not as evil as they are often portrayed, and Malcolm’s work demonstrates and balances both sides to their rule admirably.

A similar skill is demonstrated as he charts the course of events from 1878 to 1918, by which the Kosova region was taken over by the Serbs, and then the period from 1945 through to 1981, as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was replaced by the communist state under Tito until his death (September 1980). The 1945-81 period is perhaps crucial for understanding current events, as Kosova was first made a part of Serbia, then gradually given increasing local autonomy in the 1960s, culminating with the 1974 constitution by which it was granted virtual-State status, including the rights to issue its own constitution and to secede from the federation. At the same time, the forces which were to break Yugoslavia up and lead to genocide against its Muslims were gathering, to be launched in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of this book is that the period from 1981 onwards is treated so briefly compared to earlier periods. While Malcolm’s informed analysis means that his judgement cannot be questioned, and the section can hardly be thought superficial, it is undeniably thin, adding relatively little to what is already understood on the immediate background to current developments. Malcolm shares perhaps the traditional historian’s disdain for current events, believing that a good 50 years’ hindsight is essential for good historical work. But most readers will be interested in the more recent events rather than the earlier periods.

This, of course, was a point made also about Malcolm’s Bosnia book. But that was published amid a spate of books discussing the more immediate situation in Bosnia, and so was treated as superb and essential background reading. Unfortunately, there is little other literature on Kosova, making Malcolm’s weakness more obvious. But that is not his fault. He set out to write a short history of Kosova, and has done so superbly. Let us hope that others will fill the gap sooner rather than later.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 6

Muharram 19, 14191998-05-16

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