Jul 20th 2006 | LIPLJAN
From The Economist print edition
Kosovo's Serbs worry about their future in an independent country
WHEN elephants fight, the grass gets crushed. The old proverb is worth recalling before next week's “elephant round” of talks on Kosovo's future. Kosovo is part of Serbia and Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister, says it will remain so for ever. Yet it is under the jurisdiction of the UN, which has been holding talks on its future since February. The elephant round would involve Kosovo's premier and president, Mr Kostunica and Serbia's president, Boris Tadic. If all four men turn up, their meeting will be in Vienna on July 24th.
Ethnic Albanians, who make up over 90% of Kosovo's 2m people, are sure that independence is coming. Yet it may not arrive by the end of the year, as they had hoped. Meanwhile, Kosovo's 100,000-odd Serbs are frightened and confused. More than half live in enclaves surrounded by ethnic Albanians; the rest live in a compact area abutting Serbia proper (see map). Although vehemently rejected by Kosovo Albanians, the idea that this bit might be hived off into Serbia is being discreetly floated in diplomatic circles.
Even if that does not happen, the north may get a special status. But that is little comfort for Serbs elsewhere in Kosovo. Clustered around the church in the town of Lipljan are some 800 Serbs, surrounded by 6,500 Albanians. Talks in Vienna have discussed decentralisation or effective autonomy for Serbian areas; but Lipljan has too few Serbs to make a viable Serb-run municipality.
One clue as to what keeps people there is the Serbian health centre, which has 400 staff, all paid by the Serbian government twice what they would get in Serbia proper. Serbia does this to keep Serbs and their families in Kosovo. If Kosovo became independent, say the nurses, they might have to go. Striking a patriotic pose, one says, “We are staying!” Others shout her down, yelling “You'd be the first to leave.” The Serbian church in Kosovo is just as split: one bishop says that, if Kosovo gets independence, Serbs should leave, another says the opposite. Agim Ceku, Kosovo's premier, insists that he will do everything to “accommodate Serbs in Kosovo, but not Belgrade in Kosovo.” But the Serbs do not trust him—or foreign promises that they will be safe.