Serbs wait for change

Observations on Kosovo

Drenko Todorovic takes short steps through empty days wringing what novelty he can from a hundred-yard walk between home, shop and a local shebeen where he plays cards with the six or so people in Gorazdevac who still speak to him. He's been labelled a traitor in pamphlets nailed to telegraph poles and pushed under doors. His crime - compromise.

Earlier this year, as United Nations plans for the future of Kosovo began to firm up into what was likely to be some kind of independence from Serbia, and the domination of political life by the province's Albanian majority, Todorovic joined a young party that advocated Serb participation in Kosovo's parliament.

"I don't want Kosovo to get independence - but if it does, then we Serbs must take part in the politics. If we don't, then we won't have a voice and we'll be unheard, second-class citizens," he told me. "But Belgrade is blocking us. Belgrade is abusing us and keeping us from looking to the future."

Under plans drawn up by Martti Ahtisaari for the UN, after 18 months of fruitless negotiations between Kosovar Albanians and the Serb government, Kosovo is supposed to get independence under a temporary EU-appointed "viceroy". It will be carved off from the Republic of Serbia, and its Serbian population guaranteed a huge degree of autonomy - including the right to continue to receive funding from Belgrade.

Serb schools will continue to run; so will the healthcare system. Municipalities will be able to choose their police chiefs. Some 45 cultural sites (mostly Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries), will be declared protected zones guarded by foreign troops. The UN's diplomats appear to have come up with a plan that offers Kosovo's minority ethnic groups a good chance of survival.

But after eight years of international rule, and ?5.5bn spent on Kosovo's 1.9 million inhabitants, one key ingredient for a peaceful future is missing - reconciliation.

What is offered instead comes vividly to life on a map. The Serb municipalities show up like ink splotches. Ethnic Albanian Kosovars and Kosovo's Serbs face what, during apartheid, was called "separate development". The dozen or more Serb enclaves mirror apartheid's "homelands".

To qualify as a municipality, a village or town will need 5,000 residents, with 75 per cent coming from a non-Albanian ethnic group, according to Ahtisaari's proposal. Gorazdevac, Todorovic's home town, has only about 700 Serb families. It could get subsumed into an Albanian-run area.

Todorovic, 30, and his fellow villagers don't dare leave their enclave even today. "We're probably safe, but we might not be," he explained, pointing to a memorial to two teenage boys murdered four years ago, allegedly by Kosovar Albanian gunmen.

Three Serb children from outlying villages are "bussed" each way in an ancient Lada Niva to attend Gorazdevac's high school. Nato stopped providing an armed escort for them only recently and still patrols through the village.

Belgrade argues that Kosovo is part of Serbia and continues to subsidise ethnic Serbs (though not Albanians) to remain. Public servants get double the normal pay from the Republic of Serbia. The Serbian mobile-phone network leapfrogs over Kosovo's, using microwave towers, and locks into Belgrade's circuits.

Enclave Serbs don't pay the Kosovo electricity company for their power supply, nor do they pay taxes - to anyone. With unemployment approaching 80 per cent, Kosovo's 100,000 Serbs spend their lives in indolent, enervating limbo. Since Todorovic - who is unemployed - began campaigning for Serbs to integrate, his free Serbian cable TV has been cut off.

Serbia has rejected the UN plan and Belgrade presses Kosovar Serbs to boycott all Kosovar institutions. Russia has signalled that it might veto the package when it comes before the UN Security Council. But the longer Serbs and Albanian Kosovars spend in limbo, the greater the danger of a return to violence.

"We are doing things a bit back to front, setting up an independent state and then trying to get everyone to live together peacefully. But if we don't there's a chance the whole place will explode," admitted an adviser to Agim Çeku, the ethnic Albanian prime minister of Kosovo.

At a rally in Pristina, Visar Yemeri, an Albanian nationalist, spelled it out: "If we don't get total independence soon, there will be war. Delay is a recipe for war."

An estimated 200,000 Serbs fled Kosovo after Nato and the Kosovo Liberation Army forced the withdrawal of Serb forces in 1999. Most remain refugees or are concentrated in the north of Kosovo around the city of Mitrovica. Pumped with propaganda about how Kosovo is a lawless gangster state in the making, few Serbs want to return to their original villages, even if their homes have been rebuilt.

In Svinjare, a village on the edge of the Albanian-dominated south of Mitrovica, Milorad Radivojevic stared ruefully at fallow fields he abandoned in 1999 and still fears to cultivate. Only one of 141 Serb families has returned to Svinjare.

"I wouldn't dare come here unless I was with you," said Radivojevic, an electrical engineer.

Walking through the house that has been reconstructed since it was destroyed in riots in 2004, he observes that the sewerage system hasn't been plumbed in. "This village is supposed to be for us to live in," he says. "But they don't want us back - it's here to show to the media and diplomats, to say: 'Here's a village for the Serbs but they don't want to live in it.'"

So, is it a public relations stunt? Have the UN, EU and Nato come to the unsayable conclusion that, with a bit of luck, Kosovo's Serbs will just give up and drift away?

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?