Six years after the end of warfare here, fear and suspicion still enforce a strict separation of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, but for the first time both sides are beginning to picture a future in which they might -- just might -- live together.
Talks began Monday in Pristina on the future legal status of an area that has been under the administration of the United Nations since U.S.-led bombing forced out Serbian forces in 1999. Anti-Serb riots in March 2004 stoked fear here and in foreign capitals of new violence between the two populations, and possibly even between Serbia and Kosovo, prompting the U.S. and European governments to endorse the talks.
"This is about ending a dispute of more than a century," said Avni Arifi, an adviser to Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi. "The only way to move forward is to talk. Otherwise anything can happen, mostly bad."
"It's time to show some political maturity and do something about this conflict," said Sanda Raskovic, an official in Belgrade who will be part of the Serbian negotiating team.
Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president who was appointed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to mediate the talks, arrived by air Monday in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, to open a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at finding common ground. Officials in Pristina and Belgrade, the Serbian capital, say they will eventually sit down and speak directly.
NATO began its bombing campaign in 1999 in response to the killing of Albanian civilians during a Serb crackdown on Albanian separatist guerrillas. Despite six years of U.N. administration, Kosovo remains officially a province of Serbia.
The Albanian majority demands full independence. Serbia wants to keep Kosovo within its territorial bounds, albeit with substantial autonomy. "Kosovo is part of Serbia, and not only part of its history but also part of its present and future," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told parliament in Belgrade on Monday.
The United States and European governments will wield strong influence in the negotiations. Many analysts predict they will eventually pressure and cajole the two sides into accepting a status being called "conditional independence."
Under such a framework, Kosovo would formally separate from Serbia, but would remain for an extended period under some type of international supervision, with foreign peacekeeping troops continuing their patrols, as in nearby Bosnia, where a U.S.-brokered peace deal initialed 10 years ago ended another of the Balkans' ethnic wars.
The talks represent a dramatic shift in course for the outside powers. After 1999, they told the Albanians that talks on final status would begin only if they improved the rule of law and the protection of Serbs in Kosovo. But after the riots of 2004, in which Albanian mobs torched close to a thousand Serb houses, foreign officials concluded that the current framework was untenable. They authorized talks while continuing to pressure the Albanians to rein in lawlessness.
A visit to Kosovo shows how stagnant and yet volatile the situation is. The majority population of 2 million Albanians and the minority Serbs, now numbering about 100,000, live in separate, mutually hostile worlds. A bridge over a river that separates Serb and Albanian parts of the northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica carries little traffic. Sharp-eyed men on both sides warily look over anyone who crosses.
The Serb population of Pristina is down to 120 from about 40,000 in 1999. Serbs' homes have been occupied by Albanians. The few Serbs who dare come into town complain of harassment.
In the countryside, a few Serb enclaves remain, surrounded by Albanian villages and subject to the whims of illegal Albanian militias. Few refugees have returned. Recently, a shadowy armed group called the Army for the Independence of Kosovo ordered Kosovo politicians to declare independence or face a "difficult situation," which people here took to mean death. Another group opposes talks altogether and has spray-painted the slogan "No negotiations. Self-determination" all across Pristina.
Still, the decision to talk has forced contemplation among Serbs and Albanians about what a new Kosovo would be like.
Nikola Bejovic, an artist and one of the few Serbs who still lives in Pristina, said, "They will talk and talk, but anyone who thinks this will be over in a year is dreaming."
Bejovic lives in a suburb and has not been downtown for a year. The last time he visited, he recalled, he spoke Serbian and someone clubbed him on the head. He ended up in a hospital.
People at the talks "will try to come up with something that will satisfy everyone," he predicted. "It will be like a magic trick. When the Albanians look at the solution, it will look like independence. When Serbia looks at it, it will seem like something else."
Bejovic, 56, moved to Pristina 33 years ago after meeting his future wife, Armi, now 51, an Albanian who was born in Pristina. She said Serbs and Albanians both consider her a freak: "When I am in Serbia, they call me names. When I am here, they call me names. This is a stupid place."
In downtown Pristina, Ehup Ahmeti, an 18-year-old Albanian, sells cigarettes out of a crate. He says independence is on the way and wonders where that will leave him. "These cigarettes are going to be the same whether we're free or not," he said. "The real reason we need independence is because we cannot live with the Serbs."
Ahmeti's family came to Pristina from central Kosovo after the war "because our house was burned down and there were plenty of Serb apartments here."
He had expected Kosovo to be independent long ago. "I thought that's what the war was about," he said. "There's no way there can be any other solution. Really, the Serbs ought to go back to Serbia. . . . A few can stay, but really, there was a lot of killing. They should not come back."
Independence is one topic that is not supposed to come up when Serbs and Albanians address each other directly during the talks, both sides say, though for entirely opposing reasons.
"This we only discuss with the international community," said Arifi, the adviser to Kosovo's prime minister. "We have trust that the solution is obvious."
The Kosovo negotiating team intends to talk about practical issues: war reparations, pensions to Albanians dating to before the war, land records held in Belgrade, border controls, rights to fly commercial planes through Serbian airspace and the treatment of the Serb minority within Kosovo. "We recognize they have an interest in Serbs living here, as we do for Albanians living there," Arifi said.
Arifi said Kosovo was prepared to offer compromises to smooth the way to independence. It would agree to international peacekeeping troops remaining within its borders and to foreign monitoring of human rights. It would pledge never to unify with either Albania or the Albanian communities in Macedonia to the south. "This is not something we wanted to do anyway," Arifi said.
Independence for Kosovo is also not on Serbia's agenda because in Belgrade's view, it would violate international law and roil the Balkans. At the war's end, the Serbs point out, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1422 said that Kosovo was legally part of the former Yugoslavia.
The Serbian government is willing to agree to "substantial autonomy" for Kosovo to run its own affairs and for Serbs there to have autonomy within the province. "The schools must be local, the sheriff must be local," said Sanda Raskovic, a member of the Serbian negotiating team.
Foreign governments that help oversee Kosovo have good reason to reject independence, she conjectures. Declaring Kosovo a sovereign state would set an example for other conflictive places, notably Bosnia, where the central government insists that the country's semi-autonomous Serb Republic eventually integrate fully into the Bosnian state.
"If Kosovo walks off, why will the Serb Republic stay put?" said Raskovic. Serbian officials raise the specter of a domino effect worldwide: Chechnya, parts of Macedonia, Taiwan, all breaking their moorings.
There's yet another party to the talks, self-declared, the Serbs of Kosovo, who officially form part of the Belgrade delegation.
"It is our future they're talking about, yet somehow we are not quite at the center of things," said Oliver Ivanovic, a Serb leader in Mitrovica. "In any case, we do not just want to be puppets of Belgrade. . . . We don't really trust Belgrade. We think the Albanians want to get rid of us and the internationals don't care.
"We're the orphans here," he said. "But we have to participate."