BELGRADE, SERBIA, October 2007
For nearly nine years, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations. Kosovo is now seeking independence from Serbia with help from the US, but Serbia and Russia are trying to block this attempt.
“Who’s Vladimir Putin,” I asked 14-year-old Jevgenije Ristanovic across our lunch table.
He squinted at me, embarrassed at the simplistic question. “He’s the president,” he said.
“Okay, and you know who George Bush is?”
Blank for a second, then he shook his head.
“Karl Marx?” I asked.
He pointed at a large picture of a bearded Marx on the wall. “That old man, there.”
This time a big laugh.
“Everybody knows who Lenin is,” he said. “He was a great man.”
We were in what is becoming one of Belgrade’s most fashionable restaurants.
Its decor is retro-communist memorabilia from Che Guevara, to Lenin, to the legendary Yugoslav leader Joseph Tito.
But unlike, say, 10 years ago, when this would have been mere nostalgia, it now has a spring in its step.
Whether on energy supplies or missile defence, Russia is emerging once more as a nation with muscle, which is why I was testing the waters with the Ristanovic family.
My interest was in the Serbian province of Kosovo.
Almost nine years ago, Nato aircrews – including some from Britain – bombed this city to stop massacres of Kosovo Albanians.
Since then, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations. But now both the US and the Kosovans want full independence – something Serbia says it will never accept.
Then in September, Russia stepped in. It was drawing a “red line”, it said, on Kosovo. It, too, would not tolerate independence.
Interestingly, to avoid fighting in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Jevgenije’s father, Dusan, left – not for western Europe, but for Moscow, which he saw as safer and more stable.
“Why’s Russia picking a fight over this?” I asked him.
“It’s not,” he said bluntly. “It’s upholding international law.
“And we’ll never accept Kosovo’s independence, so if you force it, you push us into the arms of Russia.”
Before leaving for Kosovo, I went to see the shell of a TV station that was destroyed in the Nato bombing, killing 16 people.
The attack also damaged a nearby Orthodox church. The ceiling once decorated with magnificent murals is now blank, but much has been repaired and Vladimir Putin’s name heads the list of donors.
“How would you feel if your church was bombed?” said Draga, my interpreter. “A church is meant to be a place of peace.”
She lowered her head, giving a hint of the confusion and emotion that later emerged.
Draga was here by chance.
We were heading for the Kosovo border and our main interpreter could not come with us.
Draga’s day job is selling spares in a car showroom. She was only a child during the 1990s when the Balkan wars left Serbia a nation stigmatised by war crimes.
Kosovo is about three hours’ drive south, and close to the border we stopped at the last big Serbian town, Kurshumliza.
It is a drab place of pot-holed roads, unimaginative shop displays and clusters of men hanging around because there is no work.
“Kosovo?” I asked a middle-aged man at a newspaper kiosk. “Can Russia help?”
“We really think they will,” he said. “Russia is our only hope.”
“They are heavily armed and they’re a strong world power,” said another man nearby. “We are almost the same nation.”
“They’ve helped in the past and they’ll help now.”
The border itself is an amazing contradiction of political dreams.
Both the Kosovo and Serbian governments declare themselves modern European democracies.
Both say their end goal is membership of the European Union where sovereignty itself is diminished and borders are flung open.
Yet both are stuck in a rut over independence.
The upshot is a weed-covered railway line along which trains now never run. Nestled among mist-shrouded hills, a line of trucks stretched back a long way, engines switched off, drivers smoking and litter everywhere.
The wait would be several hours, so we unloaded the car, and Draga and the driver helped us with the equipment as we walked across.
It did not take long, but in no-man’s land, after being stamped out of Serbia, their mood changed.
“I don’t think it’s safe,” said Draga. She slowed.
Through the mist, we saw the waving arm of our Kosovo interpreter by his vehicle.
Draga stopped. The driver, too.
“Can you manage from here?” he said.
“It’s just over there…” I began.
But it was not about distance. These are two societies with a history of hatred and of killing. Draga was frozen with fear.
She had never been this close and wanted to leave.
Our Albanian interpreter saw what was happening, but stayed where he was.
It turned out that he is banking on America to support full independence.
Draga and the rest of Serbia is looking to Russia to stop it.
With just a few metres between us, we were standing on new red line drawn across Europe.