BELGRADE, Dec, 2005 (IPS/GIN) -- While nationalist politicians are pushing to keep Kosovo a part of Serbia, polls show most Serbs are ambivalent.
The fate of Kosovo, home to 1.8 million ethnic Albanians and run for more than six years by the United Nations, tops the news highlights of the state-controlled media, as the opening of talks on the definitive status of the southern Serbian province nears in January.
Often opening the daily news broadcasts are statements by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica or other members of his cabinet, who vow "never to give up Kosovo," and they hold a number of complicated legal arguments in their hands.
All indications are that ethnic Albanians, or Kosovars, want nothing less than independence, and Serbian politicians are not ready to accept that.
Instead, Kostunica offers a formula of "more than autonomy, less than independence," hardly understandable to the broader public.
The U.N. administration took over Kosovo in 1999, after 11 weeks of NATO bombing of Serbia, due to the repressive politics of former leader Slobodan Milosevic against the ethnic Albanian minority.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244 only formally left Kosovo within Serbia. The region's fate is to be decided in talks due to open and end in 2006.
For their part, the spectrum of more nationalist-leaning newspapers has taken to defaming ethnic Albanians, pulling out old prejudices and sometimes openly fanning ethnic hatred. Controversial ethnic Albanian politicians are often openly dubbed "criminals."
Emotional words about the Serbian Orthodox monasteries scattered throughout Kosovo remind Serbs that the province was "the cradle of our medieval state and glory." There are also vitriolic attacks against Western governments accused of trying "to dismember Serbia from its origins."
One of the favorite stories used to fan Serbian pride is about "how Serb kings ate with golden forks in Kosovo," while the European royals "tore the food with bare hands." The Serb medieval state lasted until the end of 14th century, when it fell under Turkish rule.
But recent studies have shown that, despite what politicians might say and the media try to push, Serbs are not preoccupied with Kosovo.
A study by the European Movement of Serbia and the Kosovar Institute for Political Research and Development showed that some 63 percent of Serbs from Serbia proper never visited Kosovo in their lives and felt little concern about the matter.
In-depth studies by the Belgrade Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) and Gallup Serbia also show that the Kosovo issue is something regarded with less emotion than ever. According to CeSID, 27 percent of those polled believe that Kosovo will become an independent state.
"All the data show that Serbs are more concerned about the improvement of their own living standards," analyst Djordje Vukadinovic told IPS. "The hot emotions that surrounded Kosovo issue before the NATO bombing are on the decline."
Before the NATO bombing, Serbs did not even think about granting autonomy to Kosovo. Some 39 percent are now in favor of it, a Gallup Serbia survey showed.
Like other analysts, Vukadinovic says politicians believe Kosovo can be a trump card for their rising or falling popularity. "They think about the next elections," he said.
"But in the end, people will be little concerned with Kosovo if some benefits were offered for joining the European Union (EU) or something like that," Vukadinovic said.
Serbia has just opened "Stabilization and Association Agreement" talks with the EU, though it will be at least a decade before the country will be able to join the bloc.
"The phrases that describe 'Kosovo as a cradle of our medieval state' sound very nice, but people know that the baby in that cradle is not Serb, but ethnic Albanian now," historian Desimir Tosic said in an interview with local media.
"Serbia should insist on the minority rights for the remaining Serbs and look down the road toward European integration, which means less sovereignty in the classic sense."
Kosovo is home for a tiny Serb minority now, some 90,000 people. More than 150,000 fled in 1999, when the NATO bombing ended and the U.N. took over, fearing reprisal by ethnic Albanians for all the misdeeds committed in the previous era.
Ethnic Albanians, who are Muslims, became a majority in Kosovo over the course of centuries, since medieval times and the Turkish Empire. Kosovo was returned to Serbia by the end of World War I, when the empire fell apart.
By that time, Serbs were outnumbered by ethnic Albanians several times over. Decades of a more or less autonomous Kosovo came to an end in 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic imposed direct rule of Belgrade and Serb administrative domination, which was accompanied by police repression against the local non-Serb population.
However, the romantic notions and myths that surround Kosovo in Serb memory have yet to be dismantled.
"Looking back in history, one can say that there is no proof that the lavish lifestyle and highly sophisticated routines really existed in medieval Serbian courts in Kosovo," historian Cedomir Antic wrote in his latest book "History and Illusion." "Golden forks were in use nowhere, so they could not exist in Serbia at the time" he added.
Analyst Dusan Janjic said that despite all the heavy political talk on Kosovo "remaining part of Serbia," for most Serbs "it would be unimaginable to see an ethnic Albanian as a prime minister or minister of justice.
"That is what 'Kosovo being part of Serbia' means," he added. No opinion poll showed Serbs would agree to Kosovars in high office. Indeed, surveys indicate that many were surprised to learn that Serbia was paying back $130 million annually on Kosovo's foreign debt.
"Most people do feel that Kosovo was lost back in 1999, after the NATO bombing ended," international law professor Vojin Dimitrijevic told IPS. "What we need is a broader view, not only the vision of what belongs to whom. Being in this part of Europe, the western Balkans, we have to see the ways to join the rest of the continent. With Kosovo or without it, it will be the same."