After months of negotiations and 14 years after the war, Kosovo and Serbia intend to normalize relations. But the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is only a first step, writes Dragoslav Dedovic.
"Kosovo" is the most expensive Serbian word, a nationally inspired Serbian poet wrote in 1989. His point was something the majority of Serbs think today: Kosovo is not just any piece of land, but a collective term for all Serbian historical hopes and frustrations, a kind of Serbian Jerusalem.
"Serbian Kosovo" is a fixed component of education, the teaching of history and politics and of political discourse. The real Kosovo - in which 90 percent now speak Albanian - and the Serbian national myth cultivated for centuries have widely diverged in recent decades. In Belgrade, a decision must be made sooner or later to abandon either the almost mystical concept of Kosovo, or the political realities. Driven by European political constraints, the former radical-nationalist elite in Belgrade has apparently decided for realistic action.
Such a change of heart in Serbian politics is no accident. During the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 there were mass expulsions of Albanians by Serb militias. When NATO ousted Serbian forces from Kosovo, the Albanian guerrilla forces returning to Kosovo expelled the majority of the Serb population and many non-Albanian residents. Apart from a small area in the north, Serbia lost control over the province. An integration of Kosovo Albanians into the Serbian political system was no longer imaginable.
The politically nationalist-oriented Serbs who repeated like a mantra that Kosovo is Serbian - which has even been anchored in the Serbian constitution since 2008 - had no answer to a simple question: Could they imagine the Albanian guerrillas Thaci or Haradinaj as defense minister of Serbia? If they say no, they are also denying the political participation of Kosovo Albanians in the Serbian state and providing arguments for separation. If they say yes, they would have to entrust their defense to a hated war enemy. That's something Ivica Dacic, the former party press officer of the Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic, knows. As the current prime minister of Serbia, Dacic has achieved a "historic agreement" with his former wartijme foe, Hashim Thaci, now prime minister of Kosovo. That is - perhaps - a good message.
The headlines about the agreement that has been reached reflect the usual media hyperbole. Considered more soberly, this "historic day" is just a first step on the way to a possible resolution of the conflict. The everyday mutual mistrust is vast. Shackled by corruption and with frustrated national ambitions, Serbia is still on shaky ground when it comes to EU accession negotiations. And Kosovo, with a criminal economy and clans as true centers of power behind the democratic facade, remains the poorhouse of Europe.
In the current relationship between Pristina and Belgrade, it is possible to prevent the worst violence, if the leaders can keep their hardliners under control. Belgrade must reassure the Kosovo Serbs that Pristina also has its nationalist opposition under control. Even if the initial difficulties are overcome, a sustainable peace is not yet secured. If a serious investment in the economy and the infrastructure is not made, if no one is willing to take the risk of genuine, courageous reconciliation - from both sides - the Albanian and Serbian worlds in Kosovo will continue as two co-orbiting, but completely separate planets.
For many Serbs from Kosovo, Belgrade is still their capital. They believe their Albanian neighbors still have evil intent, bent on banishing everything Serbian from Kosovo. For many Kosovo Albanians, their Serbian compatriots remain powerless representatives of the former Serbian regime. This nationalistic dance can take a while. This is something that needed to be recognized in the historic agreements in Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine.