The Serbs' Self-Inflicted Wounds
With Kosovo independent, Yugoslavia is finally dead.
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?
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of protestors by Carsten Koall/Getty Images.