Joan Smith: Serbia - still the pariah that won't let go of the past

Our writer finds the country living in a state of denial about Kosovo
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The Independent Online

If only Robin Cook were alive to see it. Tomorrow, in an atmosphere of rising expectation, the people of Kosovo will take a step closer to independence. For four months, a team of international negotiators has been trying to get Serbia to agree to a negotiated settlement over the province, and its report is due to go the UN Secretary General; with the Serbian government as intransigent as ever, the failure of the negotiations will clear the way for Kosovo to declare conditional independence. Despite threats from Serbian hotheads, most observers expect it to happen by February 2008, fulfilling Robin Cook's mantra: "Let Kosovo be Kosovo".

He would have been proud to see it. Humanitarian intervention hasn't had a good press since the Iraq war but Nato's military campaign in 1999 put a stop to the slaughter of thousands of Kosovo Albanians most of them Muslims, a fact which is overlooked when the West is accused of going to war with Islam. Since then, Kosovo has been a UN protectorate and preparing for full independence; some Serbian ultra-nationalists are muttering about military action but it seems unlikely that a country which started and lost so many wars under Slobodan Milosevic has much appetite for another.

On Thursday, the EU special envoy on Kosovo reacted angrily to a threat by an adviser to Serbia's prime minister that his country would go to war if the province declares independence, but Serbia's foreign minister had ruled out military action a day earlier. Serbia's position has been weakened by events in Russia, where last weekend's rigged elections robbed President Putin, its only remaining ally, of what little credibility he still possessed.

The question for the international community isn't so much the future of Kosovo, which looks brighter by the day, but what to do about Serbia. Next month Slovenia takes over the EU presidency, underlining the political and economic success of the breakaway nations of former Yugoslavia, but also acting as a cruel reminder to most Serbs of what their country has lost.

Last year, when I visited Belgrade, I was shocked to see bombed buildings in the city centre, untouched since the Nato air attacks seven years earlier; I was even more shocked by the sour defensiveness of the people I talked to, who wanted to know why the world keeps picking on Serbia. In its most extreme form, this becomes historical revisionism on a grand scale; I was told that Serbia had only ever acted in self-defence, that Slobodan Milosevic was entirely a creation of the Americans, and that he was manipulated by his wife Mira Markovic, who was supposedly a Serbian Lady Macbeth.

Every now and then, a nation embraces pariah status. Battered by years of war and sanctions, the Serbs hug slights and grievances to themselves while their country decays around them. In Belgrade, great national museums and theatres are closed, their basements flooded; I was the only visitor in the Museum of Modern Art, once the pride of Tito's Yugoslavia, where a row of sullen employees refused to sell me a postcard. In the countryside, poverty is widespread and people have been reduced to subsistence farming. Many of them repeat the official line that it's all somebody else's fault and dream of past glories instead of confronting present reality.

In that sense, Serbia reminds me of a husband who spends years beating his wife, only to react with shock and rage when she leaves him. The government's rhetoric, about doing everything short of armed conflict to prevent Kosovan independence, demonstrates that it's still in a state of denial and the limits of democratic politics. No Serbian politician could be elected at the moment on a platform of letting Kosovo go and repairing Serbia's relations with the rest of Europe; apart from anything else, that would mean handing over a pair of war criminals, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who are still regarded in some quarters as heroes.

On the other hand, ordinary Serbs don't have to look very far to see the benefits of EU membership, and the prospect of a return to economic prosperity is the one thing that might persuade them to stop dwelling on the past. If Robin Cook were still with us, I'm sure he'd tell the Serbian government that independence for Kosovo is the first step on Serbia's road to rehabilitation in the international community. It may be hard for Serbia to swallow, but the road from Brussels to Belgrade lies through Pristina.