BOOK REVIEW / Bosnian guilt: ancient hatreds or wicked leaders?: 'Bosnia: A Short History' - Noel Malcolm: Macmillan, 17.50 pounds

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The Independent Online
THIS is a book of lucid and discerning scholarship; a triumph of solid research and good judgement. Against what some would consider almost impossible odds, Noel Malcolm has succeeded in making accessible to the general reader the formidably complicated story of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In doing so, he has indirectly raised an important question. Why is it, when we have in this country such gifted and knowledgeable analysts of Balkan matters, that our government's policy in the region has been so woefully inadequate and ill-informed? Perhaps it is too much to expect government ministers to have a command of the history and languages of the area. But the least they could do is surround themselves with people who know the subject.

In the case of John Major's administration, this seems not to have happened. In fact, the Prime Minister has made remarks on Bosnia that display a distressing ignorance. Last June, for example, he told the House of Commons that 'the biggest single element behind what has happened in Bosnia is the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the discipline that that exerted over the ancient hatreds in the old Yugoslavia'.

As interpretations of the Bosnian conflict go, one would probably get a more profound analysis from a Papua New Guinean tribesman. As Malcolm points out, the Soviet Union ceased to exert 'discipline' over the former Yugoslavia as long ago as 1948. The break between Stalin and Tito was one of the turning points in the history of the Communist world, but its significance - indeed, the very fact that it happened - seems to have eluded Mr Major.

Worse still, the Prime Minister's statement perpetuated the lie that Bosnia is a place where 'ancient hatreds' were just waiting to burst out the minute that Communism disappeared. That wars have erupted on Bosnian soil down the centuries is undeniable. But with the exception of the conflicts that broke out during the two world wars, Bosnia had lived in relative harmony from 1878, when it was placed under Austro-Hungarian rule, until 1992.

Those of us who spent time in Bosnia in 1991 and early 1992 are virtually unanimous in the view that the great majority of its people - Serbs, Croats, Muslims and people of mixed nationality - had no desire whatsoever to go to war. They did not subscribe to Mr Major's theory of 'ancient hatreds'. When war came, it came from outside. Overwhelmingly, the responsibility for Europe's worst conflict since 1945 lies with the Serbian leadership in Belgrade and the Croatian leadership in Zagreb.

The precise allocation of guilt between Belgrade and Zagreb is a matter of contention. Malcolm takes the view that President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia is more to blame than President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. Possibly he underestimates the degree to which Serbian attitudes were hardened by the policies which Mr Tudjman's nationalist government pursued from April 1990 towards Croatia's Serbian minority. But he is surely right to argue that Mr Milosevic's long-standing aim was to gather all Serbs into a single political unit that would either dominate the former Yugoslav federation or secede in the form of a Greater Serbia.

Malcolm's book is much more than a discussion of the causes and course of the war. It is a history of Bosnia from pre-Slav times which, among other things, provides an excellent account of the medieval period and the centuries under Ottoman rule. He commands sources in Serbo-Croat, German and French as well as English, but his learning is not obtrusive.

Several books on the wars of the Yugoslav succession have appeared in English in the last two years. More will come. But I doubt if any will surpass Malcolm's achievement.