If the war in Yugoslavia was the most predicted in recent times, then the outbreak of armed conflict between Albanians and the Serbian security forces in Kosovo in March 1998 was scarcely less so. Indeed, throughout the 1980s and 1990s it was common to say that the "crisis began in Kosovo and will end in Kosovo".
Fortunately, we now have a pair of readily accessible specialist accounts of the historical background to the crisis. Of the two, Noel Malcolm's superlative Kosovo: A Short History has the edge. It is splendidly produced, fluently written and formidably erudite. Miranda Vickers's more conventionally conceived and executed Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo suffers a little by comparison. Nevertheless, thanks to its "front-loading" - the bulk of the book focuses on the period after 1912, and even 1945, so that the political narrative is consequently more detailed - it will be a very helpful point of departure for those wishing to understand the immediate context to recent events.
Both authors are broadly sympathetic to the Albanian cause. But they are not insensitive to the Serbian position: both, Malcolm in particular, pay due homage to the cultural achievements of the medieval Serbian state, especially its surviving monasteries to which many Serbians - and not just intransigent nationalists - remain emotionally attached to this day. Both are sceptical of the claim of Albanian propagandists to have had a continuous majority presence since ancient times.
The Serbian "myth" of Kosovo sees the area as the "cradle" of the medieval Serb state, lost to the Ottoman Turks at the cataclysmic battle of Kosovo in 1389; thereafter the region was increasingly colonised by Albanian immigrants who murdered, drove out, Islamicised or assimilated the Christian Orthodox Serb population. Towards the end of the 17th century, the ethnic balance was further changed when Patriarch Arsenije led his flock into Habsburg sanctuary after a failed rising against the Turks. In 1912, the area was liberated by Serbia proper after the first Balkan war; however, the recolonisation was overturned during the second world war when Albanian collaborators perpetrated "genocide" against the anti-Nazi Serb population.
Malcolm demolishes these and other myths. He shows that the battle of Kosovo was not as decisive as often claimed, with the final Ottoman takeover coming decades later; and that Albanians and Serbs fought on both sides at that engagement. Thanks to some impressive interpretation and detection he proves that the Serb exodus from Kosovo in the 17th century was far smaller than generally claimed - it hardly changed the "ethnic" balance - and cannot have been led by the patriarch in question. Finally, he demonstrates that ethnic Albanians were in a clear majority in the area by 1912, that members of both nationalities collaborated with the Axis during the second world war, and that, again, the overall proportions within Kosovo were little changed between 1941 and 1944.
In any case, as Malcolm points out, the notion of "age-old" conflicts is an ahistorical one: it was only during the last hundred years that the conflict in Kosovo became a national one between Serbs and Albanians. Before then the contests were as much between Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox, of all ethnic backgrounds, or between Ottomans and Austrians with the various Serb and Albanian groupings making tactical alliances between them. Indeed, relations within the area were often characterised by harmony and interaction. Some of Malcolm's most impressive passages discuss "syncretistic" popular religion which mixed and matched across a highly diverse confessional menu. In the 16th century Franciscan visitors were startled to be welcomed into a house with the words: "Come in Fathers: in our house we have Catholicism, Islam and Orthodoxy".
The Titoist dictatorship after 1945 attempted to build on more collaborative traditions - albeit within the distorting confines of the communist one-party state. The constitution of 1974 tried to square the circle by turning Kosovo and the northern region of Vojvodina, with its mixed Serb, Croat and Hungarian population, into autonomous regions, with direct federal representation but within the Republic of Serbia. Full republican status was ruled out not merely because the Albanians were deemed to be a "nationality", as opposed to constituent "nations" like the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, but also because of fears that the Albanians might use the resulting theoretical right of secession to seek unification with Albania proper; last and not least, Tito did not want to offend the Serbs too much.
The compromise satisfied nobody. In the early 1980s Albanian demonstrators in Kosovo began to demand their own republic within Yugoslavia; they could point to the fact that tiny traditionally Serb-oriented Montenegro had hardly one-quarter of their population. At around the same time, Serb nationalists began to agitate for the restoration of Serb dominance in Kosovo and indeed Yugoslavia as a whole. They pointed to an alleged "genocidal" Albanian strategy to outbreed the Kosovo Serbs, intimidate them off the land and annex it to Albania; as a result the once majority Serb community had dwindled to about 10 per cent.
As both Malcolm and Vickers show, however, the Serbian retreat was largely due to a declining birth rate and economic pressures. None of this prevented the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic from playing the Kosovo card first to oust internal party rivals and then to convert the federation into a Greater Serbia. In 1989 he abolished the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina and appropriated their federal representation in the struggle against Croatia and Slovenia.
The Albanians under their leader Ibrahim Rugova reacted with passive resistance, setting up a parallel state with its own education system and health care, funded through voluntary taxation among the Albanian diaspora. But after the failure to secure concessions for Kosovo at the Dayton peace accords of November 1995, this policy began to look increasingly threadbare: the international community thereby signalled its intention to reward the strong and ignore the patient. Throughout 1996 and 1997 violent incidents mounted; a new force called the "Kosovo Liberation Army" (KLA) emerged, and open hostilities broke out in March 1998.
Both authors are cautious in their prescriptions for the present conflict. Kosovo, unlike Bosnia, has never been a separate historic entity; moreover, unlike newly independent Bosnia, it is de jure part of Yugoslavia, even if there are strong legal grounds for believing that the old federation is now defunct, rendering an intervention problematic, but not impossible, in international law. The aims of the KLA are far from clear but seem to include the liberation of the whole of Albania irredenta. This would destabilise the neighbouring state of Macedonia, with its restless Albanian population in the west.
In many ways, the Serbs have already lost the war in Kosovo. They have lost at the most elemental level of demography; few Serbs want to live there, especially not those themselves cleansed from Croatia and Bosnia. Moreover, the Albanians, unlike the Bosnian Muslims, are mentally well equipped for a prolonged struggle; there is a rugged border with Albania proper across which men and equipment can be infiltrated. Finally, there is the unremittingly hostile attitude of the international community. For whereas the humanitarian horrors of 1991-95 have if anything dulled the senses of the public - the outcry so far has been relatively muted - it has sharpened elite sensitivities: the kind of Nato exercise mounted two weeks ago would have been unthinkable at such an early stage of the Bosnian conflict.
Nor are these Milosevic's only problems. It is now more likely than not that Montenegro will secede; and there have long been stirrings among Muslims Slavs of the Sandzak, to the north-west of Kosovo, autonomist noises in the mixed northern Vojvodina, with its strong Hungarian and Croat presence and slender Serb majority, and even, albeit faintly, among the Albanians of southern Serbia clamouring for unity with their Kosovar brethren. It would be an irony indeed if the decade which began with the renaissance of "Greater Serbia" ended with a Serbia reduced to the borders of 1878.
Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations, University of Cambridge.
Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo
Author - Miranda Vickers
ISBN - 1 85065 8 3 and 385 5
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 328