History, it's said again and again, is what makes the loss of Kosovo so much harder for the Serbs to entertain than any of the setbacks they've borne so far under the dark stewardship of Slobodan Milosevic. Kosovo is the geographical fundament of Serbian Orthodoxy; the site of a legendary face-off between Christianity and Ottoman incursion. Among Serbs, this past is a far more vigorous currency than the miserable Yugoslav dinar, yet very few non-Serbs recognise it, or anything minted in Belgrade, as legal tender. We, too, can invoke history to explain our hesitation. Seven hundred years ago, Dante wrote King Milutin of Rascia into the book that lies open on the Day of Judgment. Milutin's sin, the imperial eagle explains to the poet in the Paradiso, was to forge Venetian ducats ('il conio di Vinegia'). Today his remote descendant Milan Milutinovic, President of Serbia, is honouring the tradition by issuing one counterfeit version after another of events in Kosovo. Since Richard Holbrooke, Washington's Balkan fixer, brokered a rickety ceasefire last October, Milutinovic's arguments have come with a plausible lustre - he invokes the UN Charter, the sovereignty of member states and so on - but his latest observation, that the 45 ethnic Albanian villagers massacred in Recak by Serbian security forces on 15 January were all 'terrorists', has persuaded no one.
LRB 4 February 1999 | PDF Download