Keeping the territory will condemn Serbs to perpetual poverty, conflict and political chaos.
By Dr Ivan Ahel in Belgrade (BCR No 556, 18-May-05)
When it comes to thinking about Kosovo, most of the public are so caught between their emotions and rational reasoning that they forget one point: it is not in Serbia's best interest to retain the former province as part of its territory.
A school of thought prevails among ordinary Serbs according to which their spiritual, national and state boundaries are marked out by churches, monasteries and warriors' graves.
This school of thought insists Kosovo is the very foundation of the Serbian state and church and that Kosovo is also the cultural centre of Serbdom - a holy gathering place for all Serbs. In other words, without Kosovo, there is no Serbia.
For most Serbs, Kosovo is a priceless, mystical treasure chest.
Whoever dares meddle in these secrets is the enemy of the Serb people. Without Kosovo, Serbia loses the very purpose of its existence, its people lose their spiritual essence and Serbia loses the only space where it can meet both its past and eternity. This, in a nutshell, is the basis of the concept of "Heavenly Serbia". And it is a concept that has been nourished in Serbian souls over many centuries with the help of the Serbian Orthodox Church and many intellectuals.
The remaining citizens and politicians – significantly fewer in numbers – who prefer the rational school of thought have woken up to the fact that Serbia no longer runs Kosovo and to the fact that since the tragic conflict between Serbs and Albanians erupted, only a few Serbs remain there in enclaves, hardly making ends meet. Almost all Serb holy places and monuments have been destroyed.
This school of thought knows the international community is not very partial to the ideas of the "Kosovo myth" and that, on the contrary, they have brutally punished Serbia, declaring it the main culprit for the sufferings of the Kosovars. Today, they are also promulgating the idea of an "independent Kosovo".
The international community prescribed total autonomy for Kosovo in UN Resolution 1244, which invites the Serbs to participate in this autonomy in proportion to their numbers. As Albanians outnumber the Serbs by 19 to one, the crucial demographic advantage of the former effectively means Serbia will never again rule Kosovo.
The same demographic advantage will also come to the fore in any referendum on the final status of Kosovo.
With the help of the international community, the Albanians have already formed an entity that resembles a state, possessing its own parliament and government. They practically govern Kosovo.
Such contrasting images lead to contradictory conclusions on what is to be done to resolve the Kosovo problem.
The Serbian government concept, embodied in the slogan "more than autonomy, less than independence", assumes Kosovo will be a sort of special entity that will remain part of the state of Serbia and Montenegro.
But this new community would, in fact, pose a dangerous threat to Serbia's interests. Firstly, it would have to take the form of a confederation, or of a federation of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.
Secondly, Albanians would make up 20 per cent of the total population of the new community and hold a fifth of the deputies in the federal parliament. As Albanians would be the second biggest ethnic group in the state, it would also mean Albanian becoming the second language of the state.
Given the Albanian age structure, (which is far younger than that of the Serbs) Albanians would make up 30 per cent of army recruits and officers.
They would have to be offered many ministerial posts. Every few years, an Albanian would have to be the state president or foreign minister.
Under such circumstances, even the name of the state would be contentious. It could not possibly be Serbia. Such a complex, multi-ethnic community would not bear the name of Yugoslavia, or of Serbia and Montenegro, because Albanians form no part of such entities.
They would certainly insist on a name of their own choosing for the joint state.
Looking at Kosovo's economic indicators, one can also see it has few worthwhile resources. The exploitation of its coal is barely commercially viable. The issue of the joint use of this resource might in any case be settled through an agreement determining all the elements and conditions for independence.
The extraction of lead-zinc ore is commercially viable only in the mines of Ajvalija and Belo Brdo, a Serbian enclave, and this will only continue for a short time, as these resources will soon be exhausted.
Agriculture is primitive and does not meet the needs of the population. There is, in fact, no real economy in Kosovo and the province has Europe's highest unemployment rate.
Kosovo's infrastructure is extremely backward and requires huge investments.
But it is the demographic data that should cause the greatest concern.
In Kosovo's Albanian municipalities, the size of the rural population has doubled since the Second World War and the urban population has jumped by a factor of ten.
In contrast to this, the Serb villages in Kosovo are steadily losing residents. Central Serbia also suffers from severe, accelerating, depopulation. As Kosovo directly adjoins central Serbia, the formation of a joint state would mean a young Albanian population steadily inundating the southern tip of this region.
A newly formed Serbian-Albanian state would not be productive in any respect, but on the contrary, would be underdeveloped and backward. A comparative analysis of the development levels of various parts of Serbia in terms of GDP per capita between the Eighties and Nineties confirms this. The GDP in central Serbia was five times higher than that of Kosovo.
This means that in a joint state, Serbia would have to financially support two million poor and unproductive people, greatly to the detriment of Serbia itself.
The international community has in practice accepted that Kosovo's separation from Serbia is the only efficient way to stabilise the region.
Serbia has no potential or capacity to change the course of these events and must go with the flow if it wants to protect its best interests.
Serbia would have to pay too much for a common life with the Albanians, in spite of the fact that over the past five centuries, the Serbian church, every Serb state and many intellectuals have endeavoured to institutionalise a set of values and beliefs, which maintain that it is imperative for Kosovo to remain part of Serbia.
These beliefs are deeply rooted in the Serbian psyche and are part of the national identity, which is why they are so difficult and slow to change.
On the other hand, the Albanians' desire for a state of their own in Kosovo is almost fanatical. Two peoples with such characteristics can hardly be expected to accept ideas about the formation of a complex joint state through consensus, in which the diversity principle would be respected and equal rights secured for all.
If emotions prevail in Serbia, it stands a good chance of opting for the barren Kosovo myth. It is only if reason wins the day that we have a chance to look to the future. In the meantime, the Serbian government has sworn to defend the Kosovo myth while, at the same time, hoping the international community will take a rational decision. This effectively means running away from the truth, when what Serbia should be doing now is putting up a fight for its true interests.
Ivan Ahel is the author of the study entitled "A Systematic Approach to the Kosovo Problem", commissioned by the Forum for Interethnic Relations, an NGO based in Belgrade.