Kosovar Serbs are divided. Those living in the north of the country refuse to recognize the government in Pristina. But they only constitute a third of the Serbs in Kosovo - and the others are keen to integrate.
Sometimes openly, sometimes less so, the Serbian government in Belgrade supports the Serbs of northern Kosovo. However, Serbs living in other parts of Kosovo feel utterly neglected by Belgrade. They complain that the Serbian government is focused solely on their compatriots in the north. Elsewhere, Kosovar Serbs are working with the government in Pristina, trying to establish a place for themselves within their independent country.
There are about 136,000 Serbs living in Kosovo, which used to be a province of Serbia. Only around a third of them live north of the River Ibar, in the municipalities of Mitrovica, Leposavić, Zubin Potok and Zvečan. They want to reunite with Serbia, and refuse to cooperate with the Kosovar government.
The vast majority of Serbs - about 100,000 - live south of the river, in the other part of the country. They, too, have many reservations about Kosovo's institutions, but for the past eight years they have participated in local and parliamentary elections. There are currently 15 Serb deputies in Kosovo's parliament. The Serb Liberals are also part of the ruling government coalition: three of the 19 ministers in Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's cabinet are Serb.
Serbs at loggerheads
The decision to participate in the Kosovar elections was not an easy one, says Slobodan Petrović, head of the Independent Liberal Party (SLS) and one of Kosovo's five Deputy Prime Ministers. "But we wanted to assume responsibility for solving our problems. Looking back it now, it's clear that this very difficult decision was the right one," he told DW.
Kosovo's constitution allows for a kind of positive discrimination of minorities: 20 of the 120 seats in parliament are reserved for minorities, with ten of the reserved seats for Serbs. In Central and South Kosovo, the Serbs decided to seize the opportunity.
They built new roads and sewage systems, laid water pipes, created hundreds of jobs and built hundreds of houses and flats for Serbs, says Petrović.
However, Serbs in northern Kosovo, as well as many political parties in Belgrade, regard the political parties and the Serbs who agreed to cooperate with the government in Pristina as 'traitors." The Belgrade government supports the Serbs in the north of Kosovo far more than those in other parts of the country.
Support from Serbia
Since 1999 and the end of the war in Kosovo, Serbia has shelled out about seven billion euros (US $8.9 billion) for the Serbs in Kosovo - and Serbian funding still continues today, much of it being used to build up parallel structures and institutions in the north of the country. "Of course, we would like to have the best of relationships with Belgrade – but unfortunately it's not very good at the moment," says Petrović. "Belgrade doesn't see us as equal to the Serbs in the North."
The politician is hoping there will be progress in the EU-brokered dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, which continues on Tuesday (2.4.) in Brussels. Leaders Ivica Dačić und Hashim Thaci are scheduled to meet for what could be a crucial round of negotiations on giving an association of the majority-Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo a certain degree of autonomy.
A European perspective
Serbia is demanding that an association like this of local communities must have executive and legislative rights. However, the government in Pristina opposes this, as do the EU and the US, fearing that any such self-styled association might later serve as a basis for a possible division of Kosovo. "An association of Serb municipalities is not contested - it is even stipulated in the Kosovar constitution - but it should not have executive and legislative powers," Petrović says. "Kosovo has a central administration and several local administrations, and that is enough." In many areas, the municipalities in Kosovo have more rights than in other countries in the region, he adds.
Agreement between Pristina and Belgrade on the Serb communities is a condition for Serbian accession talks with the EU, to be decided in mid-April.
Brussels has made this much clear: Significant access to the EU will only be granted if relations between Serbia and Kosovo are normalized. Petrovic is confident that there are enough responsible politicians in both Belgrade and Pristina who recognize and can seize this "historic opportunity for normalized relations." Ties between the two countries will steadily improve, he says; perhaps one day it may even be "the best relationship in the region."
Petrović concludes that access to the EU is the only chance for economic recovery and a better future. "The future," he says, "lies in integration, not in ethnic division."