It was late afternoon, in the spring of 1982. The weather was nice, and residents of Pristina were out on the streets, enjoying the air and chatting. It was like any city anywhere. But there was one critical difference.
On one side of the street, you could hear one language -- Albanian. On the other, you heard another -- Serbian. Kosovo's Albanians and Serbs were living parallel lives.
Along the entire length of the street, there was only one place where the two sides came together, a grove of trees where city authorities posted the local obituaries, written in both Serbian and Albanian. Separated by nearly everything, Serbs and Albanians were united by death.
Such divisions are no longer evident in Pristina. Most of the Serbs have left the capital. Obituary notices in Albanian and Serbian are no longer posted on city trees. Even death no longer has the power to pull the sides together.
Many people think the Kosovo story begins in 1999 -- when Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians to leave Kosovo, a campaign that ended with NATO air strikes -- and ended this weekend, with Pristina's declaration of independence. But in fact, the story began centuries earlier, and is far from being over. Once the celebrations die down, Kosovo may well become the next "frozen conflict."
Burden Of History
Serbia has long mythologized Kosovo as the heartland of the Serbian kingdom and Orthodox culture during the Middle Ages. Serbs were then forced to retreat following defeat at the hands of Turkish forces at the end of the 14th century, but always fostered the dream that they would return to once again lay claim over the territory when a suitable time appeared.
Albanians, meanwhile, have resided in present-day Kosovo for centuries, and endured both Ottoman and Serbian rule. Their numbers grew steadily, and with them, the dream of liberating Kosovo and other Albanian-majority parts of the Balkans.
In 1912, however, Kosovo was given to Serbia as part of the victory spoils after the First Balkan War drove out the Ottoman Empire. Serbs saw the moment as a fateful return to the cradle of Serbian culture; for Albanians, it was simply a new round of occupation. After a brief period as part of Italian-controlled Albania, Kosovo was finally absorbed into the Yugoslav federation in 1946.
Albanians belonged to one state or another state not as a result of their will, but because of shifts in the course of history. Poor living standards in Albania tempered many Kosovar Albanians' desire to secede from Yugoslavia and join their ethnic kin. But the idea was always there, on slow burn.
Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia's communist leader from 1945-80, knew as much -- and knew he needed to fight the roots of hatred on both sides in Kosovo. He created a special federal foundation forcing other Yugoslav republics to put aside hundreds of millions of dollars to fund investment in Kosovo.
The plan to develop Kosovo was never realized. With no solid strategy and no solid leadership in either Pristina or Belgrade, the money simply vanished, with no tangible results.
Other forces contributed to Kosovo's stagnation. The Cold War was at its peak, and the overwhelming interest was in keeping Yugoslavia together. Albanian secessionists had no outside support. Hoping to strike a balance, Tito cleverly created a dual position for Kosovo within the federation.
The 1974 Yugoslav Constitution recognizes Kosovo's "autonomous" status, and gave the province the de facto right to self-government. It was part of the federal power structure, with rights equal to any of the other republics -- a condition Albanians now use as the legal justification for independence.
At the same time, Kosovo was part of Serbia, as its autonomous province -- a condition the Serbs now use as the basis for their legal arguments against Kosovo independence. With Tito's death, the delicate balance collapsed. Albanians rose up, demanding the right to become the seventh federal republic of Yugoslavia. Tensions flared; Serbs, intimidated by the chilly atmosphere, began to leave Kosovo.
Slobodan Milosevic skillfully utilized Serbian national grievances during his rise to power in 1987, telling Kosovar Serbs that no one would ever "beat" them again. Two years later, Milosevic was president and began to pare back Kosovo's autonomy, dissolving the provincial government, sacking more than 100,000 Albanian workers, triggering a general strike, and illegally altering the Serbian Constitution to create a legal framework for forcing Kosovo to remain a part of Serbia.
Serbia's efforts continued beyond Milosevic. A constitutional referendum in 2006 declared Kosovo an integral part of the country but was boycotted by Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian majority. Belgrade ordered the dismantling of Pristina's final remaining autonomous institutions. Serbia celebrated victory and the return of Kosovo. Few were aware, however, that this marked a major step toward Kosovo's secession.
The history of Serbian-Albanian relations is a history of violence, force, and occupation, rather than one of conjoined institutions and moderation. Whenever possible, Albanians attempted to drive Serbs from the province; Serbs did their best to resist. Tito's interior minister, Aleksandar Rankovic, ruled over 1950s Kosovo in full repressive spirit; after he died, Albanians seized the moment, using all means possible to force Serbs to sell their property and leave. Property prices rocketed in the 1960s and '70s.
Serbian authorities saw the problem but could find no effective way to stop it. Patriotic calls to remain in Kosovo "because it's Serbia" were far from persuasive -- especially in the face of a rare opportunity to make a mint by selling off their property. Nationalism didn't always trump personal enrichment.
In this way, the hatred between Serbs and Albanians was being fed from both sides. The Serbs used the power of the police and secret services to make Albanians the second-class citizens of Yugoslavia. (This policy, in fact, found support among Slavs throughout the federation.)
Albanians, on their end, were buying up property, ignoring the word of Yugoslav law, and building an underground state that reached full function as Milosevic came to power. Slowly but surely, the Albanians were winning.
Serbia has never tried to win the hearts and minds of Kosovar Albanians. Indeed, for Serbia the issue has always been about land -- not about having 2 million Albanians in Serbia. But how do you win control of territory populated by 2 million people you don't need? Only NATO air strikes were enough to prevent Serbia from carrying out its radical solution -- the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo.
This was the moment when Kosovo stopped being a local story and became an issue of concern worldwide. The last chance for an equitable solution was lost with the assassination of Serbia's popular Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. Djindjic was steadily gaining support in the West, boosting hopes in the Balkans that Serbia would join the shift toward Europe.
It's impossible to imagine that Kosovo would have won support for independence had Djindjic remained in power. With his assassination, however, Serbia took a huge step backwards. The powers that have replaced him are far more nationalistic and far less enthusiastic about the EU.
Escaping The Past
The Balkans, the saying goes, produces more history than it can consume. The Kosovo story doesn't end with independence -- getting divorced, after all, is often easier than moving on afterward.
Kosovo does have a chance -- the accession to international institutions will likely move quickly; donors and foreign investors will move in. The current Kosovo leadership is no doubt aware that their country cannot have a stable future without sustainable economic development.
Much of Kosovo's economy, long plagued by mismanagement and a dearth of investment, would have eventually become unsalvageable. A recent report by the International Crisis Group notes that many Kosovar Albanians became deft managers of the gray economy that flourished during the repression of the 1990s, and were ready to spread their entrepreneurial wings when the Serbian dominance was removed in 1999.
Since then, however, growth in construction and trade has been limited. A key problem is the structure of the provincial economy. Kosovo has coal, lead, and people, but it is stuck in a corner of Europe that few outsiders wander to. Although a tourist industry could eventually be built around the region's surviving Serbian Orthodox monasteries, such a boom is unlikely as long as Kosovo's security remains in question.
A significant portion of the population continues to live in poverty. A Gallup poll from 2007 indicated that a majority of Kosovar Albanians believe that local institutions and government are plagued by corruption. In its annual global corruption barometer, Transparency International rated Kosovo near the top of the list. (Serbia wasn't far behind.)
Both Kosovo and Serbia have ignored economic realities so far, focusing instead on achieving independence or preventing it. Both sides had an excuse for postponing hard decision on real, deep-seated societal ills, and both, with Kosovo independence, will lose this excuse. It's time to face reality. Serbia will make a huge mistake if it decides to isolate Kosovo politically and economically.
Such a move will only force Kosovo into closer integration with other, outside countries -- leaving Serbia the loser yet again. But Kosovo, too, should be careful not to go forward without Serbia. It behooves them both to prove that a divorce is always better than a forced marriage.
An ethnic Serb silhouetted against his home in the ethnically divided town of Caglavica. (Photo by Valentinas Mite)
In December, RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite traveled to Kosovo, where he photographed the everyday realities that underlie the emotionally charged debate surrounding the region's ethnic divisions.
Click here for a slideshow of images from Kosovo.