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The Long Road to Peace in the Balkans

Recent fighting in Kosovo makes two new books "something other than academic."


By Noel Malcolm

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New York U Press

544 pp., $28.95


By Richard Holbrooke

Random House

408 pp., $27.95

On the final page of his romping account about ending the bloodiest war in Europe since Hitler days, Richard Holbrooke makes a statement in To End a War, that is startling, both for its prescience and its irony: "There will be other Bosnias,..." he writes, "they will originate in distant and ill-understood places, explode with little warning, and present the world with difficult choices...."

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As of this writing, the world is witnessing another round of Serb ethnic cleansing, this time in Kosovo. Holbrooke's final note is prescient for that reason. It is ironic because there's been plenty of warning and understanding about Kosovo both before and after the Dayton accords that are Holbrooke's principal diplomatic achievements. Yet formidable as those achievements were, requiring skill, a vision, and determination, they may not have avoided a now-familiar hypnotic trap set by Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. That trap might be called: "Appease me, you will like it."

In 1991, for example, Western negotiators were so intent on sending UN "peacekeepers" to Croatia to halt Serb advances there, so happy to "end" that strange little war, that they ignored the perilous warning signs emanating from Bosnia - signs that would soon enough explode onto front pages as Serb snipers with high-powered rifles shot 10-year-old girls in the streets of cosmopolitan Sarajevo. The question is: Can history repeat itself so quickly? What do helicopter gunships over Albanian towns in Kosovo mean?

The final pages of Noel Malcolm's perfectly timed new history, Kosovo: a Short History, contrast with Holbrooke's conclusion. Malcolm, a keen observer of the Balkans, argues that not linking the tinderbox of Kosovo to a settlement on Bosnia was a mistake. It was "a blow" to Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who spent four years telling his grindingly repressed people to wait for a settlement.

But that settlement, "worked out by the Americans at Dayton, Ohio, left the Albanians of Kosovo exactly where they were," Malcolm writes. "The Dayton settlement had the general effect of strengthening Milosevic's rule in Serbia: Western diplomats made it clear that they were grateful to him for his 'peacemaking' efforts, and that they regarded him as a constructive force in the region."

Events make these books something other than academic. Holbrooke's account is a protagonist's memoir, an insider's look at the people, places, and events that led to Dayton. It is an energy-blast of material both for Bosnia nerds and the interested public.

Holbrooke travels in Bosnia under a false UN passport and witnesses ethnic cleansing first hand; he writes a memo to President-elect Clinton saying, "This is not a choice between Vietnam and doing nothing."

About half the book recounts in lucid detail the 21 days at Dayton - from tennis matches with Croat leader Franjo Tudjman to the agreement to keep Sarajevo one city.

Accounts of Milosevic are compelling: The Serb leader calls his Bosnian compatriots "idiots." He charms waitresses at his favorite Dayton night spot, Packy's All-Sports Bar. Once, when Milosevic is confronted red-handed at lunch with evidence linking Serb paramilitary and Yugoslav Army maneuvers taking place that week - he denies all claims, refuses to touch the report, and keeps eating lunch.

Malcolm's quieter history is another labor of love (he wrote an invaluable history of Bosnia during that war) that challenges myths about the Serb heartland. With its attention to details like mineral reserves and local pronunciation, it is a book someone like a young Winston Churchill would delight in.

Malcolm points out, for example, that Albanians and Serbs have not always been at each other's throats in Kosovo, as Serb myths suggest. His chapters on Ottoman show that, contrary to tales of ravished women and forced conversions, local cultures were preserved and allowed to flourish under the Islamic Turks, who were probably more tolerant than many Balkan tyrants of the Middle Ages.

In Serbia, children are taught the story of Prince Lazar, who lost his life in the epic battle of Kosovo in 1389, fighting against the Turks. Based on the Kosovo "cult of Lazar," as Malcolm puts it, Serbs consider themselves martyrs for the Christian West. They also think of themselves as a "heavenly people" - since prior to the Kosovo battle, according to myth, Lazar chooses to lose on the temporal field of battle and gain a celestial city.

Malcolm notes these are all myths that gain power and ideology in the 19th century for Serb nationalists. In a rally in Kosovo in 1987, Milosevic stumbles upon the "talismanic power" of nationalism. When he gives a speech about the sacred rights of the Serbs, the crowd starts chanting "Slobo, Slobo, Slobo."

Holbrooke knew the Clinton team was weak and could roll his eyes at silly efforts to "consult" with allies. He knew the Europeans weren't up to Bosnia. He was brilliant but driven by ambition. He talked about evil rather than ethereal "strategies of coexistence." He advocated bombing. Who else could do this? By 1995 the secretary of state had become the secretary of state for Syria, logging numerous trips to Damascus, while Europe burned. Holbrooke could say famously, and privately, that Dayton was "the best deal we could get" - with the subtext being, "given the players we've got." Yet, Dayton led to a de facto ethnic partition of Bosnia, which de facto rewarded genocide.

Holbrooke has been criticized by New York Times reporter Roger Cohen for making light of Milosevic, making him seem like your average-Joe dictator. Holbrooke says he must be discreet, since he may have to negotiate further. But if he believes Milosevic is largely responsible for a war that killed 300,000 (his figure), is so much discretion proper? Churchill was alone in his early view that force was needed to deal with Nazism. It is a point Holbrooke makes often.

That sounds old school. The new school is meeting now in Kosovo.

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