(John Laughland for RIA Novosti)
Every evening at 5pm a group of demonstrators meets on Republic Square in central Belgrade to protest "against the occupation of Kosovo" by the European Union.
For these people, the apparently harmless transfer of power from one international administration (the United Nations, which has governed Kosovo since 1999) to another (the EU) - a transfer which is supposed to take place formally in December, but which is already being implemented as EU personnel are even now being deployed to the province - is in fact a matter of principle. The EU treats Kosovo as an independent state, whereas the UN administration is based on a Security Council Resolution which proclaims it to be part of Serbia.
The nightly demonstrations are notable for two things. First, the turnout is very low - perhaps twenty or thirty people in a city of nearly two million. The Western-backed destruction of Yugoslavia has been going on for sixteen long years now (since 1992) and most Serbs are now so exhausted and demoralised by it that they are incapable of offering any further resistance. Second, the demonstrators carry Russian flags and sing the Russian national anthem. Vladimir Putin is said to be the most popular politician in Serbia, and Russia generally is regarded now (by anti-EU Serbs at least) as their only remaining hope.
However understandable, this hope is shortly to be dashed. Ever since the violent overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic on 5 October 2000, Serbia has had an uninterrupted line of pro-Western governments and presidents. This pro-Western orientation has brought Serbia only further sales of the country's economic assets to foreigners, and the further stripping of territory from Belgrade's control. In 2006, Montenegro proclaimed its independence from democratic Serbia, only to be followed by Kosovo this February. Both acts were encouraged by the West. Serbia is therefore damned if she opposes the West (as she did from 1990 to 2000 under Milosevic) and damned if she supports it (as she has done did since 2000 under Prime Ministers Vojislav Kostunica and Zoran Djindjic and the current president, Boris Tadic). No wonder some Serbs look to Russia.
Moreover, in order for the Western (EU and US) policy on Kosovo to take effect, the existing United Nations Administration in Kosovo must be dissolved. This can happen only with a vote in the Security Council and therefore only with Moscow's consent. Moscow has said that it will not agree to anything which Belgrade opposes, and Belgrade does indeed currently oppose both the independence of Kosovo and the transfer of authority to the EU.
However, people who are in the know in Belgrade - including those who have exercised the highest offices of state - are certain that the present government's public opposition to the transfer of power from the United Nations Mission in Kosovo to EULEX (the acronym given to the EU administration), and indeed to the independence of Kosovo itself, is merely cosmetic. The present Foreign Minister of Serbia, Vuk Jeremić, said recently in a private meeting with the US State Department officials responsible for Kosovo that his government's only problem was how to find a way of sugaring the bitter bill of Kosovo independence in such a way that Serbian public opinion could be convinced to swallow it.
The Belgrade government has indeed inched towards an acceptance of EULEX and therefore of the independence of Kosovo. It has said that it will accept EULEX on three conditions - if it is approved by the United Nations Security Council; if it is neutral towards the status of Kosovo; and if it does not implement the Ahtisaari plan for (internationally supervised) Kosovo independence. Although it is difficult to see how these last two conditions can ever be met (the EU mission is inseparable from the change in status, otherwise there would be no need to install it in place of the current UN administration), it is obvious from his acts that President Boris Tadic is prepared to pay any price for Serbia's entry ticket to the EU. Serbia's appeal to the International Court of Justice for an advisory ruling on Kosovo (whose independence has been recognised by less than one third of the member states of the UN), an appeal which was successfully accepted at the beginning of this month, is likely to lead to an ambiguous judgement which is any case will be non-binding and which will probably be overtaken by events in the meantime.
Some sort of fudge - of the sort which the European Union is already a world expert at concocting-will therefore be produced between now and December to square the circle between Belgrade's declared opposition to Kosovo independence and its de facto acceptance of it. Such a fudge is certainly very dangerous for the province itself, since government and policing cannot function without very clear lines of authority - as an UNMIK policeman said to me last week, "How can you arrest someone if you do not have the clear right to do so?" Crime and corruption, already rampant in Kosovo, will only prosper even more so. But if Moscow currently does hold the key to Kosovo in virtue of its veto in the Security Council, and if Russia therefore represents a beacon of hope for patriotic Serbs, there is little she can do with this power if Belgrade itself is determined to throw it away.
John Laughland is a British historian and political scientist, Director of Studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.