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Why Kosovo is central to Serb national epic

Serbs and Kosovars meet Friday for talks on the province's status as a Dec. 10 deadline looms.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2007



BELGRADE, Serbia

After eight years of United Nations' rule in Kosovo, the idea that the cradle of Serb identity might be lost is being met here with a mix of shock, denial, resignation, and outrage. With a Dec. 10 deadline looming on the status of Kosovo – and with Serbs and Kosovars in Brussels Friday for negotiations – talk of independence for Serbia's mythic region is opposed at every turn, by nearly every Belgrade politician, amid tidal waves of patriotic media.

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"We lost Kosovo in 1999, but we aren't ready to give it up." says Alexandr Vosic, who was 16 when NATO bombed Belgrade to stop Serb forces in Kosovo. "Do I want to join Europe? Yes. Do I want to give up Kosovo? No."

For Serbians, Kosovo is not just a territory It is an epic poem, a deep pool of collective heroic memory, a cradle of religious and national identity dating to the 14th century – even if it is now 90 percent Albanian, dominated by a language that 99 percent of Serbs can't understand, and hasn't been controlled by Belgrade for nearly a decade.

In this proud Balkan capital, the idea of losing Kosovo has never quite taken hold, experts say. It was always a blurry future issue. Now, with Dec. 10 fast approaching, European and US diplomats and nongovernmental organizations hope that local politicians will prepare the public for a change, and focus on Serbia joining Europe.

But so far the opposite discourse is under way: Parliamentary battles on TV are awash in Kosovo recrimination, conspiracy theories, and anger. Much talk in Belgrade is on how to enshrine Kosovo as a permanent dispute – a Northern Ireland, Cyprus, or Kashmir – in the Balkans.

"I was at the swearing-in ceremony of [President] Kostunica, after [former president Slobodan] Milosevic was toppled," says Albert Rohan, Austria's former foreign minister and deputy to the UN special envoy to Kosovo. "I heard over and over that we are tired of Kosovo, we want jobs, we don't want to die to defend Kosovo, we want money and a better life. But this talk has changed."

Much new talk is fueled by statements from Russia that it will block Kosovo's independence in the UN Security Council, and by a feeling that the US and Europe are too preoccupied, or too divided, to carry out what is often called the last chapter of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. This week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, agreed that a way must be found to avoid humiliating Serbia in an eventual deal. But Mr. Sarkozy told Mr. Putin that "the independence of Kosovo will be recognized by Europeans" if no progress is made.

Stronger desire for Kosovo now

Many Serbs who feel that the Kosovo independence quest could get ugly or bumpy say the West should have taken Kosovo directly after the 1998 war, rather than let the question rise again.

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