Now we can phone Kosovo, but is that enough?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The town of Mitrovica was divided by a barrier constructed by Serb nationalists. [Photo]

It is time for Serbia to let go of Kosovo and allow the Balkans to move into the 21st century, writes Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane was the UK’s Minister of the Balkans from 2001 to 2005.

The modest steps brokered by the EU between Serbia and Kosovo are to be welcomed. But the fact remains that more than 15 years since the fighting stopped in Kosovo, and 20 years since the Katyn-style massacres in Srebrenica, the Western Balkans is unable to move forward.

Calling Kosovo no longer means using a Monaco prefix, but it is hardly a massive step towards Belgrade recognising Kosovo as a legitimate state. Indeed, for those not expert in the workings of international telephony, it must be a puzzle how a foreign power can dictate what phone numbers a neighbouring state can use.

It is also a modest step forward that the great heap of rubble placed by Serbian bulldozers across the bridge that divides the town of Mitrovica, home to Kosovo’s biggest Serb community, will now be dismantled.  But a “landmark” breakthrough it is not.

The plain fact is that Belgrade still cannot come to terms with the fact that the glory days of a unified state under largely Serb control have gone and will never come back.

It is as if twenty years after 1945, France still refused diplomatic recognition to Germany. Or if endless courts were still poring over the crimes committed by Germans and the French resistance in the brutality of the war.

Instead, French leaders like Robert Schumann and General de Gaulle reached out to their former foes, turned the page and within a very short time rebuilt French-German relations and allowed a period of rapid economic and social growth to take off.

For inexplicable reasons Serbia, a decade and half after losing its sovereignty over Kosovo, cannot produce a political leadership capable of resolving the Balkans conflict, as other countries have done after similar conflicts.

Ireland was wrested from British control after a short, bloody war in 1920-21, with its attendant murders and revenge atrocities. Many in Britain hankered for the days when Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, but accepted that the Irish should have their own identity.

Kosovans lived unhappily under the control of the former Yugoslavia, but when Slobodan Milosevic made his famous speech near Pristina in 1989, raising the banner of Serb ultra-nationalism, he opened the gates to the ten year, hellish Balkan conflict. Slovenia was the first country to say “adieu” to Belgrade rule, and Kosovo was the last.

115 nations now have diplomatic relations with Kosovo, but Belgrade insists that the country is just a break-away province that one day will see the light and gratefully accept re-integration into Serbia.

It is not going to happen. But the longer Belgrade refuses a final settlement, the longer Kosovo will also have its politics dominated bythe liberation fighters-cum politicians that emerged from the short, sharp war at the end of the last century.

The lack of full international status – membership of the UN, Council of Europe, and international financial institutions – makes it very hard for Kosovo to access external investment, the key to economic success.

The EU reported that in July, 47,000 Kosovans crossed into the EU, the single largest national group joining the migrant trafficking exodus from poverty. The Serbs may say “Told you so!” just as the British looked down their noses at the Irish who emigrated in their millions even after their country become independent. But it is the Western Balkans as a whole, from Greece to the Alps, that suffers as membership of the EU remains a distant dream, so long as Belgrade fails to deal with Pristina as an equal nation state.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s chief diplomat, is to be congratulated on continuing the arduous step-by-step work of her predecessor, Cathy Ashton, in making the Serbs and Kosovans sit down around the same table. Although an international phone prefix is welcome, Belgrade will have to make more effort if it really wants to move from the 20th into the 21st century.

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