BOOK REVIEW / Draped in the ragged flag of chauvinism: Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia - Richard West: Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 20

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The Independent Online
THIS is not one book but two - a pen portrait of Tito and an account of Yugoslavia's collapse.

Richard West portrays Tito as a genial patriarch, authoritarian but not a persecutor. We glimpse him cruising round Yugoslavia, equally at home entertaining crowned heads on his yacht, or roasting lamb on spits in the hills of Serbia with old war partisans. This was an all-too human dictator, puffing away at cigars as he scanned his New York Times, playing the accordion, watching Laurel and Hardy and growling at his Serbian wife, Jovanka, when she chided him for drinking too much whisky.

Thankfully, West seems to have no urge to idealise or demolish his subject in the way socialist hagiographers and anti-communist crusaders have tried to do. When he sticks to Tito, he gives us an amusing if hardly original character sketch of a remarkable Eastern European statesmen. It is when he moves off this turf to detail the rise and fall of Yugoslavia that the book falls apart.

West sees the Croatian Catholic Church and its then head, Archbishop Stepinac, as the bearer of almost exclusive responsibility for the horrors of the war. He weaves his account around this conviction, compressing Serbian atrocities and the appalling way the Serbs ran Yugoslavia before the war into a few coy sentences.

This is bad history. The old Serb-run monarchy before the war was not 'an oasis of democracy', but a grim police state to the non-Serb majority, and to left-wing Serbs. The Chetniks, Serb royalist fighters in the war, were not jovial peasants, 'local people, worried about their families and farms', but a murderous force which slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslims in eastern Bosnia and carried out massacres as dizzying as those of the Croatian Ustashe. West's version begs the question as to why Bosnia's Muslims fight with frantic passion against incorporation into Greater Serbia today.

The sources are often questionable. A key witness is Michael Lees, author of the Rape of Serbia. I remember him well. He was the pet foreign historian of the Serbian regime, regularly shouting away on TV Belgrade that Serbia had been betrayed, all foreign correspondents were spies in the pay of Germany and the Pope, all Croats and Albanians were fascists and all Bosnians fundamentalists. We foreign correspondents never turned up to his press conferences.

West's pursuit of the Croatian church blocks out many crucial issues. Slovenia - which led the stampede out of Yugoslavia - is not discussed - nor are the Macedonians and Muslims. The Albanians have a walk-on part; they are painted as fast- breeding, dirty and sly. There is a whiff of racism here and I was sad to see a British writer parroting the lines of Serbian chauvinists. It is not even new material, being heavily based on West's Spectator articles on the Kosovo Albanians from the mid-Eighties.

Words written in Serbian are spelled incorrectly - even the Serbs' national motto, Samo sloga Serbima spasava (only unity saves the Serbs).

All of this doesn't surprise me as much as it might. I met the author in Belgrade some years ago. At the end of one dinner he began a tirade against the end of white rule in South Africa, against independence for Slovenia and Croatia, and said the existence of an Irish embassy in London was 'an insult'.

This is a hasty, sloppy book, full of that sort of bile. If you are seeking enlightenment about Yugoslavia's demise, go elsewhere.