Kosovo Serbs hardly believe their fate
An enclave of fear in Gracanica
EVER since last autumn, the outside world has been sending two separate messages about the negotiations on the future of Kosovo which are due to start on February 20th. One is that, formally, the talks are taking place without prejudice; the other message, delivered more privately but with growing firmness, is that Kosovo will become independent; so Serbia must help the province's 100,000-plus ethnic Serbs to cut the sweetest deal they can if they want to stay there.
This month, the message has been delivered in a more open way, and Serbs are in deep shock. The mood in Gracanica, a Serb enclave in Kosovo built around one of the Balkans' finest medieval churches, is “fatally depressed”, according to Zivojin Rakocevic, head of the local radio station. Rada Trajkovic, a Kosovo Serb leader, spoke for many when she said: “I cannot admit to myself that it's reality.” She sees a “catastrophe” in prospect. Ms Trajkovic insists that Albanians hate Serbs so much that all her people, except the old and poor, will flee. So far, people are watching sullenly, to see if they are now doomed to be the Balkans' latest wave of refugees.
Whence the sudden shock over a piece of news that many view as an open secret? John Sawers, the political director of the British Foreign Office, caused big ructions on February 6th when he told a group of Kosovo Serbs, including Mrs Trajkovic, of the latest thinking from the contact group, a group of five western countries, plus Russia, which has been deliberating Kosovo's fate. He said the group had decided firmly that Kosovo should have independence, and Serbs must make the best of it.
Ms Trajkovic admits that Mr Sawers was not the first bigwig to say such a thing; but his bluntness caused a jolt. Meanwhile, at the office in Vienna where Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, is preparing to host the talks on Kosovo's status, there was quiet satisfaction over the diplomat's clear message: he was telling a hard truth that needed telling.
Among Kosovo's Albanian majority, making up over 90% of the province's 2m people, there was rejoicing over the diplomat's frankness, and a generally upbeat mood. Quicker than expected, Kosovo's parliament has chosen a president—Fatmir Sejdiu, a lawyer—to succeed the late Ibrahim Rugova. Veton Surroi, an opposition leader, says the change of guard gives a chance to ease out corrupt old-timers and promote people who know economics.
In Belgrade, reaction to Mr Sawers's words verged on hysteria. Tomislav Nikolic, head of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, claimed that he and Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, had agreed to declare Kosovo “occupied territory” if it secedes. Serbia's moderate president, Boris Tadic, rather quixotically suggested that Kosovo's status be deferred for 20 years. But in Vienna, diplomats gave warning that the Serbs would—not for the first time—be doing themselves a grave disservice if they were now to fall in behind hotheads such as Mr Nikolic.