It is more than 10 years since I last worked in the Balkans and I was only recently marvelling at the changes. Belgrade, heart of Slobodan Milosevic's sinister kingdom, seemed on my return, transformed in appearance and in spirit. "Turbofolk" singers - minstrels to Milosevic's warriors who then dominated the airwaves with tunes of love and glory - had been all but banished from both radio and television.
More striking still was the change in the tone in Milosevic's once-frenzied media about the non-Serbs of former Yugoslavia. When I was The Independent's correspondent in the 1990s, outside the columns of a few magazines that nobody read, screaming headlines branded all Croats as Ustashe (fascists), all Bosnian Muslims as "mujahidin" and all Albanians as Shiptars - a pejorative expression as far as Albanians were concerned.
And finally, the bleeding, miserable province of Kosovo - bane and obsession of the Serbs in the 1990s - perhaps the single most important cause of the downfall of Tito's Yugoslavia - seemed to have receded into the back of people's minds. It was a subject for debate but not for marches, church services - or fighting.
Days later, those impressions have turned to dust. Once more Kosovo and Serbia seem locked into their eternal, doomed embrace. The Serbs have been marching to their cathedral in Belgrade to the tolling of bells and chanting of priests. Meanwhile, television blares wall-to-wall commentaries - against a background of dramatic music - about terrorists, pogroms, mass murder and carnage. Once again many Serb politicians are competing to catch the public mood of outrage by issuing rash and impossible promises to "go to Kosovo" and take unspecified "measures" in what they insist will remain "our southern Serbian province".
While anger with the Albanian church and house-burners is entirely justified (who wouldn't be outraged by pictures of churches burning and headscarved women being bundled out of flaming villages by British and other troops) the hard fact is that Serbia's leaders have set themselves an ambitious threshold.
The politicians in Belgrade have not explained how they are going to "go to Kosovo" without fighting their way in through a youthful and hostile population. Nor have the same leaders - carried away by indignation - explained how they are going to ensure Kosovo is "always" part of Serbia, given that international opinion is divided on that issue, to put it mildly.
Just before Kosovo exploded in violence, Richard Holbrooke, architect of the 1995 Dayton peace deal in Bosnia, warned Serbia that it continued to suffer from a delusion about the province it was forced to abandon in 1999 and which it no longer controls meaningfully, outside of a few enclaves.
Serbs had to either choose Kosovo or Europe, Holbrooke warned at the time. "If they choose Kosovo, they will lose both Kosovo and Europe. If they choose Europe the whole of the Balkans will eventually get into the EU." If there is any sign of this blunt warning having penetrated the political elite in Belgrade, they don't show it in public. All fear electoral oblivion if they even hint that Kosovo, Serbia's "holy land", is really lost.
At the moment, they prefer to draw comfort from the stream of condemnations of Albanian behaviour that has poured in, not only from old and trusted friends such as Russia, but from Nato and the UN boss in Kosovo, Harri Holkeri.
In the short term, Belgrade is right to conclude that rampaging Albanian militants have gravely damaged the standing of the Kosovo Albanians. But the Albanians are not the only losers in this struggle. The longer the latest battle of Kosovo goes on, as Holbrooke's prescient remarks predicted, the more Serbia stands to lose if it really wants (as it says it does) eventual inclusion in the European Union and an assisted exit from its current stagnation.
After falling behind once-despised neighbours such as Bulgaria in the race to European integration, Serbia has struggled over the last few years to catch up and - as my first impressions of Belgrade indicated - to shake off its image as a place apart from the West. Now it risks being branded again as unstable, a little scary and not somewhere in which anyone would want to invest.
And if, as is expected, a Serbian ultra-nationalist, a member of a party pledged to reverse all the territorial losses of the 1990s, wins the forthcoming presidential election, Europe's sense of foreboding will increase. In the word's of the Balkan specialist Tim Judah, "Serbian and Albanian leaders have to cut a historic deal, for the sake of both their peoples, and if they don't have the courage, both Serbs and Albanians will continue to drag each other down - and out of Europe."
The big powers must re-engage in Kosovo and cajole the parties to talk and compromise. They must set a date for Kosovo's independence and work out how Serbian autonomy might be guaranteed effectively, or declare their hand by announcing some plausible alternative, even if that means partition on ethnic lines. The current uncertainty cannot continue.
The writer is the Balkans editor for the Institute for War and Peace ReportingReuse content