I have just returned from an eye-opening visit to Serbia and Kosovo, where I saw close up the difficulties people face in putting the past behind them. In Belgrade I talked with Jovan Teokarevic, a political science professor: “Many people here think that the worse things go in Kosovo, the better for Serbia. But they are wrong. The better things go in Kosovo, the sooner we will join the EU. We’re in the same boat.” And Natasa Kandic, a human rights lawyer who wants to bring war criminals to trial, says: “Many people in Serbia think that the massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo are tales invented by NATO to justify the war. In Serbia we need to face the past and acknowledge our mistakes and crimes, if we want to have a European future.”

The reintegration within Serbia of the two million Albano-Kosovars is impossible, not only because these people would not accept it, but because Serbia itself cannot take political and economic charge of the territory. Nor is partition viable, though northern Kosovo has a Serb majority and is contiguous to Serbia. Two-thirds of the Serbs in Kosovo, and the most important Orthodox monasteries, are in the South. Partition would only heighten inter-ethnic tension. Kosovo’s independence, proclaimed two years ago and recognized by 65 countries, is an irreversible fact, admitted even by the Serbs. A recent survey made by the major Serbian newspaper Blic confirmed this: Kosovo was not even among the 10 top concerns of the Serbs. On the contrary, these concerns included corruption, the poor functioning of institutions – especially the judiciary- and the control of the country by an oligarchy bred in the shadow of Slobodan Milosevic.

In Kosovo too, terrible things lie in the recent past, while the future is still uncertain. In spite of its independence, the country remains under international tutelage, and the economic crisis has brought massive unemployment and a bloated black market. Environmental deterioration weighs heavily on the land, where thermal power plants burn pestilent lignite. The plague of corruption and organized crime has abated in recent years, but is still fomented by uncertain frontiers and parallel security forces.

Another sword hanging over the country is the opinion of the International Court of Justice, which has yet to rule on the legality of the declaration of independence. But here on the scene, the Serbs are not hoping for any essential change in the state of things. This is why many of them decided to vote in the municipal elections in November, to elect their own mayors and participate in the process of decentralization and local self-government. The mayor of Gracanica, a Serb enclave near Pristina, is clear on this point: Belgrade and Pristina need to reach an agreement so that local authorities can work for improvements. “I feel trapped between two virtual administrations: that of Belgrade, where officials are still collecting salaries for administering a territory they don’t control, and that of Pristina, which won’t give me the authority or the budget to get anything done.”

The danger is that Kosovo may turn into a frozen conflict, a place where there is no violence, but no true coexistence either. Preventing the construction of a Serbian ghetto within Kosovo and a Kosovar ghetto within Europe is crucially important.

Having lunched in Pristina with the Greek and Slovakian ambassadors, and having seen how their countries are present in Kosovo and committed to its future – though they have not endorsed the unilateral declaration of independence – I believe I saw the difference between two kinds of diplomacy. One is oriented toward solving people’s problems and contributing to the stability of a region, while the other kind (Spain’s) stays deliberately aloof from a crucial area, and which, two years later, still concerns itself with theoretical quibbles and far-fetched comparisons with Spain’s internal regional nationalisms.

This article was published in El País English edition on 12 March 2010.

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