Review: “Kosovo: War and Revenge” – Tim Judah

Kosovo is a subject that interests me. NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia on behalf of an armed secessionist movement that many Western countries—NATO members included—considered a terrorist organization and the subsequent recognition of Kosovo by most Western states have significant politico-legal implications for conflicts far beyond the Balkans. This is a subject I address extensively in Chapter 3 of my book on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Tim Judah’s book “Kosovo: War and Revenge” interested me because while I have read a lot on the balkanization of Yugoslavia and the legal implications of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, I have not read many detailed historical narratives of the emergence of the KLA and the outbreak of the war in the late 1990s. Moreover, although published by Yale University Press, I found it challenging to accurately gauge Judah’s ideological angle. Was this book an admirable attempt at unbiased analysis or NATO propaganda? The answer is somewhat of a mix.

On the one hand, Judah includes considerable information about the origins of the conflict in Kosovo as far back as the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 between the Serbs and the invading Ottomans. This provides valuable historical context, albeit Judah examines it for the wrong reasons (see below). Judah also provides a detailed, chronological analysis of the emergence of the KLA and why the war in Kosovo occurred after the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

According to Judah, while Serbian forces were fighting major wars in Croatia and Bosnia, a kind of ‘dual regime’ existed in Kosovo between Serbia and the Kosovar government of Ibrahim Rugova, which Serbia tolerated to avoid overextending its armed forces by fighting three wars at once. Moreover, unlike the fascist regimes of Franjo Tuđman in Croatia and Alija Izetbegović in Bosnia, Rugova advocated a “passive resistance” policy to Serbia and avoided outright demands for independence to avoid provoking a catastrophic war, which suited Serbia. The Dayton Accords, however, fatally undermined Rugova’s policy of passive resistance. According to Judah, in the eyes of many Kosovars, the Bosnian Serb leaders, despite their campaign of genocide, were being rewarded in the Dayton Accords while Kosovars were without rights in Kosovo despite Kosovo having been a federal unit in the old Yugoslavia. In other words, the “evil” Bosnian Serbs had the newly recognized Republika Srpska, while the “good” Kosovars had nothing.

Moreover, the fact that the Bosnian Serbs achieved what they did caused many Kosovars to believe armed resistance was a viable and more effective alternative. The lack of weapons and ammunition with which to fight the Serbs, however, prevented the emergence of an armed resistance movement. This changed with the collapse of the Albanian government of Sali Berisha in 1997. The Ponzi scheme crisis and chaos in Albania made weapons and ammunition widely available to Kosovars, who began to smuggle weapons into Kosovo. This combination of the failure of Rugova’s passive resistance and the sudden widespread availability of arms from Albania enabled armed resistance, hence the emergence of the KLA and the outbreak of the Kosovo War in 1998.

On the other hand, there are numerous flaws in Judah’s analysis of events, mostly stemming from his liberal and pro-NATO ideological bias. One of the more intolerable aspects of Judah’s methodology is his over-emphasis on personalities and blood feuds and his outright rejection of any material basis of the events he examines. Judah continuously reminds the reader that it is the psychopathic tendencies of Slobodan Milosevic or other Yugoslav leaders and, to a lesser extent, historic blood feuds (Judah discusses the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to prove his argument that historic animosities are a major contributing factor), and rejects a material analysis of conditions completely. For example, Judah dismisses the belief that “when people hate each other, or have been manipulated into hating each other, that relative wealth and standards of living have anything to do with it. If this was the case, then the relatively prosperous Yugoslavia would never have collapsed in blood in 1991” (Pages 25.-26).

Judah completely ignores the well-documented fact of the US and other imperialist states using economic coercion to divide Yugoslavia by writing this. In 1984, the Reagan administration in the US issued National Security Decision Directive 133, which called for the support of “quiet revolutions” in communist Eastern Europe. This involved supporting reactionary secessionist leaders and their movements in Yugoslavia. The US threatened to cut off all aid to Yugoslavia unless elections were held, but only within the various republics and not at the federal level, inflaming inter-ethnic tensions. The US National Endowment for Democracy and other CIA fronts supported the electoral campaigns of pro-West, anti-Serb, and anti-socialist leaders in the national republics. At the same time, countries such as Germany and Austria sent arms shipments and military advisors to secessionist leaders in Croatia and Slovenia. German military instructors even engaged in combat with Yugoslav troops. By 1991, a European conference on Yugoslavia declared its support for “sovereign and independent republics” within Yugoslavia, effectively repudiating Yugoslavia’s sovereignty.

Alongside US-NATO support for right-wing secessionist leaders was the IMF-imposed fiscal dismemberment of Yugoslavia. In the 1960s and 1970s, Yugoslav leaders had made a catastrophic error in borrowing money from the West, and by 1991 Yugoslavia’s international creditors were in complete control of domestic monetary policy. Under the IMF-imposed structural adjustment and capitalist shock therapy, transfer payments from the federal government to the national republics were cut, leaving the republics to fend for themselves. As Chossudovsky wrote:

By cutting the financial arteries between Belgrade and the republics, the reforms fueled secessionist tendencies that fed on economic factors as well as ethnic divisions, virtually ensuring the de facto secession of the republics. The IMF-induced budgetary crisis created an economic fait accompli that paved the way for Croatia’s and Slovenia’s formal secession in June 1991.

The US-NATO imperialist states and IMF used economic coercion to divide and dismantle socialist Yugoslavia. But Judah refuses to acknowledge the role played by US imperialism and attributes the dismantling of Yugoslavia to Milosevic’s craziness and primitive blood feuds. Similarly, Judah attributes the actions of Western leaders and NATO to personalities and self-esteem, not immediate material interests. For example, Judah argues that after NATO threatened to bomb Serbia in violation of the UN Charter, if no agreement could be reached between the Kosovars and Serbia, then NATO would have to bomb Serbia or be humiliated (Page 166). Attributing NATO’s illegal bombing of Serbia to its need to do “something” to stop atrocities and to save face and nothing more also blatantly ignores the nature of the targets bombed by NATO. In what Parenti describes as “privatization by bombing,” NATO humanitarian bombing targeted Serbia’s economic and cultural capital:

NATO’s attacks revealed a consistent pattern that bespoke its underlying political agenda. The Confederation of Trade Unions of Serbia produced a list of 164 factories destroyed by the bombings — all of them state-owned. Not a single foreign-owned firm was targeted. As I observed on a trip to Yugoslavia shortly after the war, the huge, state-run Hotel Yugoslavia was made uninhabitable by NATO missiles, while the corporate owned Hyatt Hotel, with its all-glass facade — as inviting a target as any mad bomber might want — suffered not a scratched window-pane. Buildings that displayed highly visible rooftop signs that advertised Panasonic, Coca-Cola, Diners International, and McDonald’s, the latter replete with immense golden arches, survived perfectly intact.

The NATO bombing targeted only publicly-owned schools, libraries, telecommunications, energy and transportation infrastructure, factories, theaters, hospitals, and clinics, as well as historical sites, cultural monuments, museums, and churches — “something not even Hitler did.” This kind of deliberate targeting of non-military targets—a war crime—indicates that something besides humanitarianism and the need to save face was at stake for NATO.

However, concepts such as class struggle and imperialism—or, for that matter, terms like “Leninist” considering Judah’s deliberate misuse of them—are anathema to Judah’s liberal ideology of free-market capitalism. This leaves him little choice but to lazily attribute all the issues which plagued Yugoslavia in the 1990s to individual personalities and ancient blood feuds. To summarize 312 pages, the Kosovo War occurred because Milosevic was a madman, and “blood had been spilled, and blood required blood to expunge the original sin” (Page 108). This is Judah’s whole book.

As flawed as I think this book is, I might need to read Judah’s latest book(s) on Kosovo, since I a curious how he explains Kosovo’s independence in 2008. But then again, I am doubtful it will be much better.

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