Serbs want a new European role but old problems haunt them, reports Tim Judah
Belgrade-Serbia -With all eyes on France and the future of Europe, the fate of Kosovo might seem piffling, but no one is going to die in France as the result of its referendum. As for Kosovo[Kosova], well, in 1999 we did fight a war over it and yet, when the UN Security Council on Friday gave the green light to a process that could result in its independence - or in another war - nobody noticed.
The council's decision is of momentous importance. The big powers - Britain, the US and France, dragging a reluctant Russia behind them - have decided that, six years after the end of the Kosovo war, the status quo itself has become a threat to stability.
Kosovo[Kosova] - for Serbs, the cradle of their civilisation, home to some of the most important Serbian historic sites - is a land where more than 90 per cent of the population is ethnic Albanian. Technically it is part of Serbia, but it has been a UN protectorate since the war ended. Kosovo's Albanians desire independence and if Kosovo is forced back to Serbian rule no one doubts they will go back to war.
In March 2004, 19 died[11 Albanian and 8 Serbs] and 4,000 Serbs and Roma were driven out of their homes when Albanians rioted. Diplomats and policymakers realised something had to be done. On Friday that work began.
The UN has asked Kosovo[Kosova] to live up to a series of eight standards, including human rights. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, will send a representative to assess the situation and in September, assuming a favourable report, a 'status envoy' will be appointed to discuss the 'final status' of the province.
According to sources this process will last up to nine months and, assuming Serbs and Albanians cannot agree on whether Kosovo should be independent or not, a Security Council solution might be imposed. It might be some form of what is called 'conditional independence'. That is to say, a figure with considerable legal powers, such as those held by Lord Ashdown in Bosnia, might be appointed with reserve powers to, for example, sack politicians deemed to be corrupt.
Here in Belgrade, it seems that the city is out enjoying the summer sun. For years, Serbs have wanted nothing less than for their country to be a normal part of Europe again. And things have been going their way. Last weekend the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development held its annual meeting here, and this weekend Serbia is holding its first Erotic Fair.
But Kosovo haunts them. On Friday Serbia handed over to Kosovo the remains of 64 Albanians, along with those of 709 others, in the Batajnica Ministry of Interior base, near Belgrade, where they were buried by the Milosevic regime during the war.
Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian Prime Minister, and President Boris Tadic both say Kosovo is Serbian land and cannot have independence, only 'more than autonomy'. At first glance you might suspect that these were gambits in the negotiations. But they are not. Both men genuinely believe that Kosovo's two million Albanians can be persuaded by the international community to give up their dream of independence. But this is a fantasy and it is unlikely Russia will come to their rescue.
Serbians warn that, if Kosovo is given independence against their will, then extreme nationalists will come to power and plunge the region into chaos.
But Kosovo Albanians say the same. Without independence, they say, the radicals will begin an intifada, 'cleanse' the remaining Serb population and spread war into Serbia and Macedonia.
There is no easy answer for Kosovo. But one thing is sure. If nothing is done, the violence will be back and then British, French, Italian and US troops stationed there will come into the firing line and the UN mission could collapse.
Supporters of the European constitution remind us that the EU was born to end war. Across Kosovo, which has little prospect of entering the EU until at least 2014, they already use the euro and the European flag flies everywhere. They believe in it. Let's hope they're not wrong.