Vesela arched her black eyebrows, dragged deeply on her contraband Marlboro, narrowed her dark eyes, and snarled, “David, Kosovo is Serbia and Serbia is Kosovo”.
Vesela was one of Serbia’s leading, liberal political commentators who had opposed the war in Bosnia and Croatia and was an implacable critic of Slobodan Milosevic. Yet even she maintained that Kosovo was different. The Serbs could lose Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia and even Montenegro, but Kosovo would never be relinquished.
We were in the Serbian Writers’ Club — probably the most famous restaurant in Belgrade and the fulcrum of what was described at the time as “Weimar Serbia”.
In 1997, the country was battered by sanctions, hyper-inflation and the realisation that it had lost the war for Yugoslavia. In addition, it was beginning to sink in that the atrocious murder of innocents in Bosnia and Croatia had, rightly, turned the country into an international pariah.
In response, the Serbs reacted to all this chaos — like Berliners in the 1920s — by turning their capital, Belgrade, into a large impromptu party, with new bars, clubs and underground theatres opening nightly. Belgrade laughed with the gallows’ humour of a condemned people.
Within two years of that late- night Belgrade conversation, an isolated and morally corrupt Serbia was at war with the US and NATO over Kosovo — a war it had no hope of winning.
This perplexing country sustained more than two months of daily air strikes by NATO which pushed an already battered economy over the cliff.
Ultimately, Serbia surrendered, having achieved nothing. The historic province of Kosovo — which to the Serbs is as integral to Serbia as Munster is to us — was being wrestled from it by an international community which had lost patience with this delinquent country.
But why were the Serbs prepared to go to war with NATO over a province that is now 90pc Albanian Muslim, and why should we care? Surely the Serbs, by their murderous actions in Bosnia, have lost all legitimacy anyway? Even if you believe that Kosovo should be independent, are there any lessons for the rest of Europe from the politics of ethnic demography?
Let’s do something unfashionable: let’s put ourselves in Serbian shoes. The Serb view is, oddly enough, very like that of the Palestinians. Although they won’t admit this, historically, the Serbs of Kosovo — like the Arabs of Jerusalem — thought they were top dogs.
For centuries, the local small Jewish population was treated poorly by the Arabs of Palestine. Similarly, the Serbs of Kosovo treated the Albanians appallingly.
Under Arab rule, the Jews were governed by the Charter of Omar which laid out 12 rules (not unlike the Penal Laws) which dhimmi or non-Muslims had to abide by to be allowed to live in peace. The dhimmi also had to pay an annual tax for the privilege of being left alone.
Likewise, the Serbs treated the Albanians as second class citizens.
Like the Palestinians with Jerusalem, the Serbs see Kosovo as their heartland. This is the cradle of Serb civilisation and they have always lived there. Like the Palestinians who, with their Arab allies, declared war on the Jews in 1948 in reaction to the UN setting up the State of Israel, the Serbs sent their troops into Kosovo province in reaction to the UN threat of an Albanian State in 1998.
The Serbs lost this war in 1999 as did the Palestinians in 1948 and, as a result, thousands of Serbs in Kosovo became refugees in their own land.
Those Serbs who are left in Kosovo, like the one million Israeli Arabs who are subjects of a Jewish State, are now given the choice to remain in Kosovo as subjects of an Albanian State.
The Israelis argue that the “facts on the ground” in and around Jerusalem — which is shorthand for Jewish majority areas — should dictate the sovereignty of the city.
In the same way, the Albanians argue that as they are now the majority, Kosovo is theirs.
Looked at from the Serb perspective, the Albanians have out-bred the Serbs and they are now being rewarded for such prodigious fertility.
Furthermore, the Albanians argue (like the Israelis) that they did not start the original war. Ultimately the victors contend that the Serbs (and Palestinians) are simply reaping what they have sowed.
Albanian politicians have also made the arguments that the Serbs have all of Serbia in which to live. Many Israelis make the same argument when they suggest that the Palestinians have the entire Arab world in which to live while middle- eastern Jews only have tiny Israel.
In addition, it is not unusual to hear Albanians and Israelis make the analogy with displaced Sudeten Germans in the Czech Republic when discussing the displaced Serbs and Palestinians.
The Sudeten Germans — who lived in what was then Czechoslovakia — sided with Hitler in 1938. They were expelled in 1945 and, by losing the war and being implicated with German atrocities, the Sudeten Germans lost their right to return to their Czech homeland.
The three million Sudeten Germans became permanent refugees in Germany, just as many thousands of Kosovar Serbs are refugees in Serbia and displaced Palestinians are forced to live in Jordan and South Lebanon.
Serbs are not usually portrayed as victims but in this case they see themselves as a put-upon race who have been penalised by the politics of demography.
Unfortunately for the Serbs, they remain a pariah nation and many European countries, including Ireland, have accepted the logic of numbers. Kosovo is now Albanian and Muslim.
In the course of the next decade, it looks highly likely that the remaining Serbs in Kosovo will be forced out, bringing to an end eight centuries of European and Balkan history.
Granted, this account of Kosovo’s history is jaundiced and probably inaccurate, but that’s the way the Serbs see it.
We in Ireland have the experience of the North and know that when a land is disputed both sides create their own myths and martyrs. That said, and you don’t have to sympathise with the Serb view of history, there is one lesson that we can all take from the independence of Kosovo.
The EU now accepts the principle that an existing country can be partitioned if the demographic balance changes.
Does this have ramifications for Europe’s future? Given differing birth rates between Europe’s Christians and Muslims, could we see the Independent Caliphate of Piedmont or the Islamic Republic of Jutland?
It would be unwise to overstate the case, but the implications of the Kosovo move for an aging Christian continent facing mass Muslim immigration might be worth considering.