An epic tragedy, with farcical interludes

Kosvo: war and revenge by Tim Judah (Yale University Press, £12.95 p/back; £25 h/back, 348pp)
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This is a good book, well-informed, compelling and free of bias. Having reported from the Balkans for a decade and written a general history of the Serbs, Tim Judah knows the Kosovo story inside out. He gives a reviewer the privilege of passing quickly to points of disagreement.

The book has two particular strengths. It sets the unfinished conflict over Kosovo in context, looking back over the past century, focusing on the crisis after Tito's death in 1980 and then Milosevic's constitutional mugging in 1989, when the province's autonomy was abolished. Second, Tim Judah unearths the origins of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) among a "loony fringe" of tiny groupings that married an ethnicist ideology with guerrilla methods.

Even today, after so much atrocity and dispossession, polls suggest that KLA militants do not enjoy much support. Most Kosovar Albanians stick by the mainstream movement that, under Ibrahim Rugova, pioneered non-violent resistance in the early Nineties.

While Judah is justly acerbic about Rugova's later fecklessness, it would have taken a genius first to symbolise a human-rights problem and then to engineer a coercive intervention by the great powers. The missing element of ruthlessness was provided by a few dozen activists, including long-term émigrés. The KLA knowingly provoked Serbian reprisals against civilians, hoping to draw in NATO.

The essential condition for the KLA's eventual success was Milosevic's total intransigence. Despite some shrewd insights, Judah's account of the Serbian leader is not quite convincing. He speculates that Milosevic rejected any NATO deployment early in 1999 because he didn't believe the bombing threat, or else no one in his circle would risk advising him to believe it, or he feared NATO would depose him. Only the last guess is credible. US envoy Richard Holbrooke's testimony, quoted here, shows that Milosevic understood what lay ahead.

Judah suggests Milosevic only capitulated in June because "all his calculations had failed". This presumes that his defiance in March had hinged on a belief that he could split NATO, spark war in Bosnia or Macedonia, or win Russian support. Yet nothing confirms that Milosevic was banking on these remote possibilities. In truth, his decisions hardly seemed optional at all.

Shakespeare remains the best guide to Balkan politics in the 1990s. For Serbia's elected tyrant, consider Macbeth and Richard III, so far in blood that sin plucks in sin. Like them, Milosevic is bound upon a wheel of fire. He is trapped, unable to normalise his state without destroying himself, as his power rests on violence and corruption.

By vocation a technocrat, not a blood-and-soil nationalist, he knows what he's missing. Whether or not he thrives on confrontation, he is doomed to it. The last relic of the European order before 1989, he is a fallen angel of history, propelling himself into the future by the force of catastrophes contrived to postpone his disappearance.

Milosevic never sought a solution for Kosovo because he does not solve problems. He creates them and milks them until they are taken away from him or absorbed into a larger crisis. His passivity mirrored Rugova's, but from a position of strength. He preferred to allow the pressure to rise until it exploded. Explosions are bread and butter; negotiated compromise is poison.

A master of zero-sum politics, he plays his hand superbly. Judah wrongly argues that Milosevic "always ends by conceding far more than he was originally asked". In Bosnia, the Dayton settlement of 1995 was better for him than the Vance-Owen plan of 1993. It left him strong, but the need for more conflict was inescapable.

The KLA gave him another lease of life. Though Judah doesn't say so, the terms agreed with NATO last summer were multiply superior to the settlement proposed at Rambouillet. The Kosovo occupation is run by the UN, dependably a soft touch. NATO stays out of Serbia. Most important, Kosovo was wrenched from him by the world's most powerful alliance after a 78-day fight; no one can say he didn't try.

Judah's account of NATO's dilemmas is incomplete, but he conveys the sheer oddity of the operation: not so much a war as "a modern-day version of gunboat diplomacy", an act of limited coercion, albeit so massive that the distinction seems indecent. Nobody benefited more from what Michael Ignatieff calls the "virtuality" of the 15,000-foot bombing campaign than Milosevic, whose nation was victimised by NATO without having to fight it. He knows his limits; there would have been no desperate struggle with Western troops. If NATO had deployed ground forces at the outset, the operation could have been over in a week.

Judah reminds us usefully of the "three republic" solution mooted in 1997. This would promote Kosovo to equal status with Serbia and Montenegro in the rump Yugoslavia. As a halfway house to a viable settlement, it would be preferable to today's limbo haplessly administered by the UN. The great powers could do worse today than to resuscitate this idea.

The book ends by hinting that centuries of Serbian vengefulness lie ahead. I somehow doubt that irredentism will be ardent. Forget the myths about Serbian expansion into Croatia and Bosnia - "Greater Serbia" was Serbia with Kosovo. Shorn of its colony, Serbia is simply Serbia. Probably, most Serbs realise this at some level. They should help their benighted politicians and intellectuals to catch up. Meanwhile, Milosevic is with us still. MT

Mark Thompson's book 'Forging War: the media in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina' is published by Article 19