If you only want bad news from the Balkans, it is easy enough to find. You can read the next few lines and then read something else. Bosnia is on the brink of war again. Kosovo’s independence is “a failure.” Serbs are scheming, unredeemable extreme nationalists, and organized crime is everywhere. In the last few years I have come to understand that many people outside the region actually want to believe the worst: they want black and white when, like everywhere else, real life is a shade of gray. I am not arguing that, fourteen years after the end of the Bosnian and Croatian wars and almost two years since Kosovo declared independence, serious problems do not exist. It is just that in many respects things are not as bad as commonly believed.
Here is a small example. A few weeks ago in Brussels there was an EU meeting with ministers of the interior and justice from the western Balkans. Just before it began the Serbian minister, Ivica Dacic, refused to participate because his counterpart from Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, had removed the nameplate at her place that described Kosovo under its pre-independence designation, UNMIK. That is the acronym of the old UN mission there, which now, to all intents and purposes, exists only to provide, where required, a nameplate for Kosovo in international meetings.
After a brief exchange it was agreed that nobody would have a nameplate and so the meeting began. Did the Serbian minister, who during the Balkan wars was a chief spokesman of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his trial for war crimes in 2006, refuse to participate if Kosovo was present? Did the news agencies decree “tension rising” in the Balkans? Was the border between Serbia and Kosovo closed? Of course not. But most outsiders are not aware that Kosovo and Serbia and all the other parties who not so long ago were engaged in slaughtering one another now work together frequently. On December 22, after being judged eligible by enough countries, Serbia formally applied for membership in the EU. Three days earlier, in a move that will affect many ordinary people, visas for most European countries, which were imposed when Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s, were abolished for Serbs, Macedonians, and Montenegrins. They will likely be lifted for Albanians and Bosnians sometime in 2010.
Kosovo was (or is, depending on your point of view) a province of Serbia; its population is overwhelmingly Albanian. After Yugoslavia disintegrated, Kosovo remained part of Serbia until conflict broke out there in 1998, and was followed the next year by seventy-eight days of NATO bombing. After that, Serbian security forces pulled out and Serbia’s administration of Kosovo was replaced, initially by UNMIK and eventually by Kosovo’s own elected bodies in which the remaining minority population of Serbs sometimes participated and sometimes did not. Since declaring independence, Kosovo has been recognized by sixty-five countries, but not of course …
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