As the discussion over Kosovo's status moves toward its conclusion, the question has arisen as to how the international community should treat Serbia in the aftermath.
Kosovo seems likely to complete soon the transition from Serbian rule, which effectively ended with the departure of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces in June 1999, and the declaration of Kosovo's independence, the circumstances of which are likely to be clear before the end of 2006.
The international community has indicated that Belgrade will not have a veto over Kosovo's future, although the Serbian leaders have been given numerous opportunities to state their views. The key principles involved in resolving the status issue are self-determination and majority rule, with strict international guarantees for the rights of minorities.
This outcome is hardly surprising. By mid-2004, many in the international community had concluded that prolongation of Kosovo's political limbo, under what much of the 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority regards as inefficient colonial rule, was untenable and likely to lead to further violence.
U.S. diplomacy in particular was assertive in moving toward resolving the status issue, and Denmark's Soren Jessen-Petersen, who recently completed his tenure as head of the UN civilian administration in Kosovo (UNMIK), took an especially active role in the process.
"If we talk about conditional independence of Kosovo, at least we should talk about conditional membership of Serbia in the EU."
Numerous suggestions from Belgrade that the decision on Kosovo's status be put on hold for years seemed unrealistic and geared more to appeal to Serbian voters than to reflect broader political realities.
Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who is a traditional conservative, argued that granting independence to Kosovo would open a Pandora's box of Serbian nationalist passions in response. He stressed that Kosovar independence could thus benefit the antidemocratic and nationalistic Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in the early elections that many have been expecting to be called since early 2004, when a minority government was formed with great difficulty.
Conditional Membership Of The EU?
Kostunica's views did not seem to convince many decision makers abroad, but at least one influential person called for a form of nonterritorial compensation for Serbia for the loss of Kosovo.
"Serbia deserves some sort of compensation for the regional situation and I think, indeed, Serbia should be offered some kind of conditional membership in the EU," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel said in Brussels on July 17. "I think if we talk about the conditional independence of Kosovo, at least we should talk about conditional membership of Serbia in the EU."
It is not clear what Rupel expected to achieve by such a statement. For years, EU officials have been telling those who want to join that body -- including Slovenia, which entered the EU in 2004 -- that there is no "fast track" to membership, which can be obtained only by meeting the political, economic, and legal criteria set down in a very long and explicit list.
Countries like Croatia, which have played by the EU's membership rules and are still waiting in line for admission, would certainly take a dim view of Serbia's being allowed to "jump the queue," particularly in view of Belgrade's failure to find, arrest, and extradite some prominent war crimes indictees.
Some Kosovar Albanian commentators wryly suggested that Rupel was possibly thinking more of preserving Slovenian access to Serbian markets than of making constructive suggestions for regional stability.
How Important Is Kosovo To Serbs?
An ethnic Albanian man holds the flag of Albania during a July 24 rally in the capital of Kosovo, Prishtina (epa)
In its July 22 issue, Britain's "The Economist" wrote that "it has long been said that there are two Serbias. One is conservative, nationalist, and backward-looking; the other is liberal, modern, and progressive."
Both elements have readily identifiable traditions in both the distant and less remote past. Most recently, the antimodernist trend was at the forefront during the Milosevic years, which ended in October 2000. The more liberal current has been epitomized lately by people such as President Boris Tadic or the G17 Plus party.
The exact balance of forces is difficult to assess, because Serbian polls are often misleading due to the large number of respondents who say "don't know" or refuse to give an opinion. One recent survey suggests that the Radicals would receive 36 percent of the votes if the elections were held now.
The last parliamentary elections, which took place in December 2003, and the mid-2004 presidential elections indicate that this might represent the peak of the party's appeal.
In other words, the SRS has a large and solid political base but little appeal beyond it. To form a government, it would need to build a coalition, which it proved unable to do in early 2004. There is no indication that it would be more successful now than it was then.
Nor is it clear that SRS voters are primarily motivated by concerns about Kosovo. Some observers feel that the Radicals appeal not only to nationalists but also to voters who lost by the fall of the communist system and who fear change in general. The outcomes of the 2003 and 2004 elections suggest that there was a post-2000 shift in support to the SRS by people who had previously voted for Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and its smaller allies, which were also antimodern.
There were certainly nationalists among such voters, but there were also old communists and many simple people who felt that they had slid into poverty and were getting poorer.
A recent poll suggests that about 60 percent of respondents, especially those in Serbia proper, would "tolerate" an independent Kosovo.
A second recent poll suggests that about 60 percent of respondents, especially those in Serbia proper, would "tolerate" an independent Kosovo. This indicates that Serbia might be far from boiling over with nationalist passions over the province.
It would also be in keeping with a fact, which has often been cited by RFE/RL's Serbian broadcasters, that only about 20 percent of Serbs have ever bothered to visit Kosovo as tourists.
Some Serbian and foreign observers have suggested that perhaps the most effective way to appeal to Serbian voters would be to address their daily concerns of poverty, crime, corruption, and, ultimately, a democracy deficit, rather than to assume that their primary interest is Kosovo. Kostunica and some other traditional-style politicians who talk much about Kosovo have had six years since the fall of Milosevic to prove themselves, and some voters might be asking themselves what these leaders have actually done for ordinary Serbs.
This could be an opportunity for liberal and progressive Serbs to put forward serious programs for dealing with the country's real problems.