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One Day, They’ll Sit Down Together

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In a matter of six months, possibly less, cartographers will have to make a small change in the political map of Europe: according to a U.N.-backed proposal unveiled Feb. 2, the formerly Serbian province of Kosovo is about to become an independent state. Ethnic Albanians, who make up the bulk of Kosovo’s population, welcomed a plan that brings them to the brink of fulfilling their century-old dream; Serbia and Kosovo’s Serb minority have already rejected it, and they’re struggling in vain to prevent its implementation. But as the wheels of diplomacy spin, the impact of this change on the lives of people on both sides of the border is a far more subtle thing than either side seems ready to admit. Proponents of Kosovo’s independence, including most Western countries, claim that it will bring a much needed stability to the land that languished in legal uncertainty after nato forced Serbian security forces to withdraw in 1999. Since then, Kosovo has been ruled by U.N. administrators while formally remaining a part of Serbia. Now this largely symbolic bond is about to be severed, but that doesn’t mean the people of Kosovo will be free from foreign rule: according to the plan, devised by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, the European Union’s office in Pristina will have broad powers to keep local politicians in line, both in internal and external affairs, much as in Bosnia (which is also nominally independent and internationally recognized). Furthermore, some 30,000 nato troops will remain in the province, while Kosovo will be allowed only a 2,500-man army. And finally, some 100,000 Serbs in Kosovo will have a high degree of autonomy, and rights to economic and administrative links with Serbia.

While most ethnic Albanian leaders are ready to accept token independence over the status quo, some are already grumbling that Ahtisaari’s plan falls far short of their expectations. Albin Kurti, the leader of the pro-independence Self-Determination movement, warned that “Ahtisaari’s proposal does nothing for Kosovo’s independence, state system and sovereignty” — and called for its rejection. Kurti’s movement, which intends to stage a series of anti-plan protests, is backed by hard-line veterans of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, a guerrilla force that waged a ruthless war against Serbs. In the short run, Kurti’s extreme views are unlikely to attract many followers, but that could change once the Kosovars discover that having a national flag and anthem will not automatically bring jobs and put food on the table. One thing diplomats rarely discuss is the sustainability of Kosovo’s economy: an unemployment rate estimated at 50% coupled with rampant corruption and an absence of the rule of law presents a tough challenge for any elected government, independent or not.

As for the Serbs, the independence of Kosovo is nothing short of catastrophe. Most of my compatriots have never been to Kosovo, nor do they intend to go, but that doesn’t stop them from having strong feelings about it. Too many Serbs nurture a romantic notion of Kosovo; it is a part of our upbringing, our epic poems and our national mythology. Most Westerners find that difficult to understand, but not me. To find a place as firmly attached to the sense of national identity as Kosovo is to the Serbs, you have to look to the Holy Land’s iconic status for Jews and Palestinians alike.

When I first went to Kosovo, as part of a school trip some 30 years ago, I was half-expecting to see the ghosts of the noble knights and wise priests who forged the Serbian medieval empire centuries ago, before the Ottoman army crushed them in the epic battle of 1389. That was the image I learned in school. Instead, my 14-year-old schoolmates and I saw that this mythical and magic land was teeming with grim, foreign-looking folks who made us feel distinctly unwelcome. And we couldn’t understand why they seemed so angry and miserable when everyone in communist Yugoslavia was supposed to be happy in ethnic harmony. When I went back, much later, to cover the dirty war between Serbian security forces and the KLA, I was much less naive. In the end, I learned to love Kosovo not because of its history, but in spite of it.

The Ahtisaari plan comes at a bad time for Serbia. It is swinging between pro-reformist forces who are aware that the loss of Kosovo is inevitable (but daren’t say so for fear of losing votes) and hard-line populist “patriots” who find the general frustration over Kosovo a fertile ground for their merchandise — and whose ascent to power would push Serbia deeper into confrontation and misery. I do not dare predict which of the two sides will prevail.

What the Albanians (who think Ahtisaari’s proposal gives them too little) and Serbs (who grieve that it takes away too much) don’t seem to understand is how little real change independence will bring to people’s ordinary lives, and how many of the present problems will remain. Kosovo will not fly to Venus and Serbia to Mars, no matter what diplomats agree in New York City, Brussels and Moscow. The truly lasting solution will be reached only when Serbs and ethnic Albanians sit down together and work it out among themselves. That will not happen soon, but one day it will. Ahtisaari’s plan, provided it survives its first contact with reality, could at least be a step toward that day.

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