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Serbia and Kosovo — On the Road to Europe?

Have fear and anger between the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians receded since the end of the war?

January 23, 2006

Have fear and anger between the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians receded since the end of the war?

After a few weeks in Bosnia, I decided it was time to go east, to Serbia. I wanted a closer look at what is left of Yugoslavia as it crawls toward European Union membership. I also needed to put a human face on a nation that became a pariah during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.

Before I left, friends advised me to downplay my passport. There are some hard feelings toward the United States of America because of the U.S.-led NATO strikes that hit the Serbs twice in five years. Today, however, the United States is the biggest foreign investor in Serbia.

I arrived six hours later at the Belgrade train station by shuttle — a white van driven by Olga, an attractive, tough, middle-age blonde who chain smoked the whole way.

One of the first things I noticed was buttons and trading cards of Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. They were presented in a reverential fashion, like the war memorabilia sold near the Vietnam and Lincoln memorials in Washington. Only these three individuals have been indicted for genocide and other crimes.

Later, I noticed a mammoth portrait of Milosevic mounted on an apartment façade near Republic Square. The Cyrillic caption read, “Sloboda,” meaning freedom. It was a play on Slobodan, but I never figured out why it was there.

He’s not the popular figure he once was among Serbs. “Milosevic wasted Serbia,” said 23-year old Vladimir Vucinic on an icy day in Belgrade. Only “uneducated” people living in the rural areas support him, he added.

Belgrade was too stiff, like a monument to itself. So I headed south to Kosovo the next night.

That morning, a woman I met over coffee looked alarmed when I mentioned my travel plans. She told me to “wear my U.S. passport on my forehead in Kosovo,” because I looked like I could be a Serb. “Kosovo is a dangerous place,” she warned. Later, my taxi driver refused to believe that buses had started running again to Pristina, the capital city.

Their fears go back to 1999, when NATO intervened to stop Serb attacks against Albanians. Serbs forces had killed thousands and drove scores more away.

Afterwards, Kosovo Albanians sought revenge on their Serb neighbors, killing some 1,500 and expelling at least 100,000 as NATO troops were supposed to be keeping the peace.

Once we arrived at the border, my press pass was more useful for getting into Kosovo than my passport. For the rest of the journey, an Albanian Kosovar did a visual dance between me and his UNMIK passport.

I don’t know what he wanted to communicate, but I did realize that the province is in geopolitical limbo between Serbia, statehood and the United Nations, which took charge of Kosovo in 1999, when NATO intervened. It has been a U.N. protectorate ever since.

The limbo can create confusing situations, such as when the bus pulled into the deserted Pristina terminal at 4 a.m. and when my taxi driver wanted nothing to do with my Serbian dinars. “Euro only. No dinar,” he insisted.

Dinars are preferred, however, in Serb-dominant areas such as Gracinica — only 5 miles away. I learned later that children in towns like Gracinica learn Serbian in school, while those in Albanian towns like Pristina are taught Albanian.

The sun was shining in Pristina, but tension was thick. Kosovo’s demands for complete independence from Serbia — and Belgrade’s refusal to accept it — have raised hackles.

The way the ethnic Albanians see it, Kosovo has been colonized for a 100 years by Serbia, a country they have nothing in common with. “No negotiations. Independence!” read the black and red (Albania’s national colors) message stenciled all over Pristina’s buildings and in the sooty industrial suburbs.

According to Serbian history, Pristina is the cradle of the nation, the Serbs’ Jerusalem. They view Kosovo as a breakaway province with an ethnic Serb population. Serbia staunchly rejects anything more than broad autonomy for Kosovo. It covers 12% of Serbia, has strategic importance and is rich in natural resources.

The United Nations, European Union and United States are right in the middle of it all. UN-mediated talks about Kosovo’s status are set to begin early this year, and someone is in for a disappointment.

“The international community understands that the only solution is independence for Kosovo,” said the government spokesman, Syle Ukshini. Autonomy didn’t work in past, he said, adding that, “there are no more chances for such an arrangement.”

The pursuit of independence for Kosovo is likely to pit Serbia against all sides, although the lure of the EU and foreign investment may bridle its possible reactions.

I tried for days to ask Belgrade officials about it, but their spokeswoman said no one was available to talk to me.

One thing was clear: Serbs in Kosovo feel exposed and put little faith in Belgrade or the international community’s willingness to protect them. They absolutely doubt the likelihood of protection if Kosovo became independent.

I was standing in Gracinica’s mesmerizing 14th century Orthodox monastery, thinking about Kosovo’s dilemma. The majestic, golden Byzantine frescoes of King Milutin and his wife, Simonida, are Serbs’ testimony to their past greatness and belonging in Kosovo.

Monasteries like this are Serb islands in an Albanian sea tethering them emotionally and historically to the province. It’s the “land of living history” — two quarreling histories. Albanians’ claim to Kosovo is also historical, but it relies today more on sheer numbers. They outnumber Serbs nine to one. In Kosovo terms, that means political dominance.

The Serbs fear that independence will turn into national chauvinism, a worry that is not unfounded. Although the chauvinism has gone both ways depending on who’s on top.

They don’t want to see Serbia carved up into a nation where they will be second-class citizens. These are the very same worries propelling Kosovar Albanians toward independence. They are just seeking protection from Serbia by splitting off.

It was the same issue that led to decades of confrontations, culminating in the war. The difference today is that governments do not have to stoke the fears. Fear and resentment have deep enough roots to grow on their own among Kosovars.

In this climate, the international community has to acknowledge that political boundaries cannot be imposed from the outside on a country with internal ethnic divisions.

That reality cannot be ignored or dismissed because facts no longer matter when people feel vulnerable. Kosovars need confidence that the road to a new political environment is the right one for them, and that violence is not the answer to their problems.

The question is whether the broken promises, bloodshed and hate of the past are going to stand in the way of a middle ground that can fulfill everyone’s demands. That is the knot Serbia, Kosovo and the international community has to unravel.