Fighting Words

The Serbs’ Self-Inflicted Wounds

With Kosovo independent, Yugoslavia is finally dead.

Serbian protestors in Belgrade

Someone with a good memory of the conversation once told me how Lord Carrington, then one of the “mediators” of the incipient post-Yugoslavia war, came to the conclusion that Slobodan Milosevic was a highly dangerous man. Well-disposed toward Serbia (as the British establishment has always been), Carrington told the late dictator that he understood Serb concerns about significant Serbian minorities in Bosnia and Croatia. But why did Milosevic also insist on exclusive control over Kosovo, where the Albanian population was approximately 90 percent? “That,” replied Milosevic coldly, “is for historical reasons.” It’s a shame, in retrospect, that it took us so long to diagnose the pathology of Serbia’s combination of arrogance and self-pity, in which what is theirs is theirs and what is anybody else’s is negotiable.

We used to read this same atavistic proclamation by the hellish light of burning Sarajevo, and now we glimpse it again through the flames of the blazing U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, and by the glare of similar but less dramatic arsons set by Serbs in ski masks in northern Kosovo itself. But it needs to be understood that “Serbia” itself has lost nothing and has nothing to complain about. With the independence of Kosovo, the Yugoslav idea is finally and completely dead, but it was Serbian irredentism that killed the last vestige of that idea, and it is to that account that the whole cost ought to be charged.

Forget all the nonsense that you may have heard about Kosovo being “the Jerusalem” of Serbia. It may contain some beautiful and ancient Serbian and Serbian Orthodox cultural sites, but it is much more like Serbia’s West Bank or Gaza, with a sweltering, penned-up, subject population who were for generations treated as if they were human refuse in the land of their own birth. Nobody who has spent any time in the territory, as I did during and after the eviction of the Serb militias, can believe for a single second that any Kosovar would ever again submit to rule from Belgrade. It’s over.

But how did it begin? In fact, Kosovo has never been recognized internationally as part of Serbia. It was only ever recognized as part of Yugoslavia, and with the liquidation of that state Serbian claims upon its territory became null and void. A little history here is necessary.

During the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, the then-distinct kingdom of Serbia, with some regional allies, did manage to invade and annex a formerly Ottoman territory that had been the scene of a Serbian military defeat in—wait for it—1389. (In that year, England was laying emotional claims to large and beautiful areas of France.) Serbian monarchist and nationalist propaganda hailed the “liberation” of the ancestral land, but the shrewdest foreign correspondent of the day took a different line:

Do not the facts, undeniable and irrefutable, force you to come to the conclusion that the Bulgars in Macedonia, the Serbs in old Serbia, in their national endeavor to correct data in the ethnological statistics that are not quite favorable to them, are engaged quite simply in systematic extermination of the Muslim population in the villages, towns and districts?

Leon Trotsky, writing this in January 1913 as an open letter in the (Menshevik) paper Luch (“The Ray”) was addressing the “liberal” Russian chauvinist politician Pavel Miliukov. So, as you can see, the arrogant Russian support for Orthodox Christian ethnic cleansing in the Balkans is not a new problem. (Under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pious rule, though, our own timorous press prefers not to call attention to the way in which Russian political thuggery is increasingly backed by an Orthodox religious hierarchy.)

The same Balkan war—as Trotsky had predicted—went on to draw in the whole of Europe and indeed the rest of the world, and by the time it ended, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires had imploded entirely and there was to be a new state, Yugoslavia, where they had once jostled at the borders. You might argue that Kosovo was now part of Serbia by “right” of conquest (in other words, de facto), but in fact, not even Serbia had adjusted its own laws to make it a legal province de jure, and this was in any case moot because all future treaties and agreements were signed between Yugoslavia and the no-less-new state concept calling itself republican Turkey. Legal instruments agreed between these two entities recognized Belgrade’s sovereignty over Kosovo, but solely in the sense that they recognized Belgrade as the capital of Yugoslavia. (For a more extended discussion of this essential constitutional point, see Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: A Short History.) Thus, and if we exempt some decisions made by Stalinist bureaucrats after the re-creation of Yugoslavia in 1945, Kosovo has never been treated or recognized as Serb territory within Yugoslavia and never at all by international treaties outside that former state. Even those hasty Stalinist decisions were later undone by Tito, who granted Kosovo a large measure of autonomy in 1974. It is very important to remember that Slobodan Milosevic launched his own petty and violent career, as the head of a Serb-Montenegrin crime family, precisely by cancelingKosovo’s pre-existing autonomy in 1990, remaking himself as a nationalist demagogue instead of a Communist one, and bringing in the roof of the Yugoslav federation.

You will by now have read dark remarks made by partisans of the Russian and Serb Orthodox viewpoint, to the effect that if one “secession” is allowed, then what is to prevent every Gypsy or Chechen or Ossetian from proclaiming their own statelet? You should, first, ask if the Bosnian Serbs ought not to have thought of this first and been better advised by the “realist” or Kissinger school that now weeps such hypocritical tears. You should, second, ask if you know of any case comparable to the Kosovo one, where a national minority was so long imprisoned within an artificial state.

Of course, one ought to acknowledge that this is a calamity for the Serbs and indeed an injustice in the sense of an insult to their pride and history. But the injustice was self-inflicted. I remember seeing, in Kosovo, the “settlements” for Serbs that the Milosevic regime was building in a vain effort to alter the demography. And who were the bedraggled “settlers”? The luckless Serbian civilians who had been living in the Krajina area of Croatia until their fearless leader’s war of conquest for “Greater Serbia” had brought general disaster and seen them finally evicted from farms and homesteads they had garrisoned for centuries. Promised new land on colonized Albanian territory, they had been uprooted and evicted once again. Where are they now, I wonder? Perhaps stupidly stoning the McDonald’s in Belgrade, and vowing fervently never to forget the lost glories of 1389, and maybe occasionally wondering where they made their original mistake.