Kosovo: A Short History
by Noel Malcolm
Noel Malcolm, a writer for the London Daily Telegraph, emerged during the recent Balkan wars as an outstanding reporter on the atrocities, as well as the obscurities, of that conflict. He then made intellectual history of a sort, publishing a widely read study, "Bosnia: A Short History," in 1994.
Mr. Malcolm's book on Bosnia was authoritative and morally forceful, in that he combined a thorough inquiry into the history of the country with sympathy for the Muslim victims in the latest catastrophe. In "Kosovo" (New York University Press, 492 pages, $28.95), he has gone one better. His essay on this Albanian-majority region, ruled by Serbia and all too likely to be the next flashpoint in the Balkan crisis, is more than the historical outline of a troubled region. It is also a pathbreaking work of Albanology, by far the least developed area of Balkan studies in the English-speaking world. This is a book every policy expert, journalist and lay person interested in the Balkans must read.
As Mr. Malcolm shows, Kosovo -- located on the southern border of Serbia, northeast of Albania proper and northwest of Macedonia -- has been an arena of competition since the time of the Romans. The secret of the rocky plateau's attraction has been its extraordinary mineral resources. Mines of silver, above all, but also of lead, zinc, magnesite, bauxite, chrome, copper and iron, have allowed successive rulers of the area to become rich and powerful. Kosovo helped to make Yugoslavia the third-largest producer of magnesite in the world, but its silver mines have also made it a desirable acquisition for Serbian rulers over the centuries. The economic aspect of Kosovo's history makes the current fighting between Serbs and Albanians, the main contestants, freshly comprehensible.
Nevertheless, the immediate causes of bloodletting over long epochs have been language, religion, nationality and land tenure. One of the ironies of this situation, as described by Mr. Malcolm, is that neither the Serbs nor the Albanians are homogeneous nations; each has absorbed elements of the other, as well as marginal national groups, including such exotic ethnicities (to Americans, at least) as the Vlachs, speakers of a Romanian dialect found in highland Balkan communities.
Serbian nationalists have constructed an elaborate historical justification for their intermittent domination of Kosovo. It is based on the long-ago founding of Serbian Orthodox monasteries in the region, as well as legends of a 1389 battle with the Ottomans -- which the Serbs and other Christians lost -- at Kosovo Polje, the "Field of Blackbirds" for which the area has come to be named. Until the 17th century, as Mr. Malcolm shows, Kosovo may have indeed had a Serbian majority. However, an earlier occupation of Kosovo by (non-Slav) Albanians is considered likely.
According to Mr. Malcolm, Serbian expansion into Kosovo did not become extensive until the 12th century. Yet he also declines to accept the common assumption that the Albanians -- and their isolated language, which is Indo-European but very different from others in the family -- are descended from Illyrian or Thracian inhabitants of the inner Balkans in Roman times. He notes the first appearance of Albanians in the historical record in 1043. But he also points out a minor but fascinating item of Balkan linguistics: the presumption that Dardania, the name of Kosovo under the Romans, derives from the Albanian word dardhe, or pear, seemingly supporting the theory of ancient Albanian occupation of the territory.
If it all sounds confusing, it is. But Mr. Malcolm has performed the heroic work of sorting out the differing claims and traditions. He has treated both national ideologies, Serbian and Albanian, with a rare detachment. Even more novel is his "revisionist" view of the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the zone from the middle of the 15th century through the first decade of the 20th.
Mr. Malcolm writes: "In most Balkan countries, the popular view of Ottoman rule is almost entirely negative." The Ottomans are portrayed as virtual savages, imposing alien customs, expelling the native populations and replacing them with Turkish colonists, forcing conversion to Islam, and subjecting those they ruled to an unending torment of oppression and abuse. As Mr. Malcolm declares: "All of these claims are at best misleading and at worst completely false." He argues that Ottoman rule was far more complex and pluralistic than later anti-imperial intellectuals have argued.
This is perhaps the most significant aspect of this book: An examination of the Kosovo controversy shows that, possibly even more than creating warring forms of modern nationalism, the primitive "liberation" movements of Serbs, Albanians, Greeks and Bulgarians led to a heedless and brutal assault on Ottoman society in the Balkans, the consequences of which are written in blood today.