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Former Balkan outcast seeks to overcome brutal past in formal bid to rejoin its European brethren - 15 Mar 10
View from the old city across the Danube to New Belgrade
Looking across the Danube from old to New Belgrade

elgrade is not on most people's list of weekend getaways but maybe it's time it should be.

After a decade of drowning in a post-war-post-sanctions depression, the capital of former Yugoslavia is surfacing with a new look and friendly vibe.

This charming city has a thriving live music scene sparked by hosting the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest and Serbs have just had the yoke of visa restrictions lifted from their European travel plans.

But there's still a blot on Serbia's EU horizon. Alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic is still at large and sovereignty of Kosovo remains the key bargaining chip in negotiations for EU membership.

This month marks the 11th anniversary of Nato's intervention in the tiny province of Kosovo to stop former President Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslav Army ethnically cleansing Kosovar Albanians.

These anniversaries are unlikely to pass unnoticed by either Serbia or Kosovo. The buildings destroyed by Nato bombs still stand in downtown Belgrade and military peacekeepers still guard the ethnic enclaves in Kosovo from attack.

But these reminders are not helpful to the Serbs coming to terms with the atrocities committed in their name, especially as they are bidding with Iceland, Albania, Montenegro and recent former Balkan adversary Bosnia Herzegovina to join the biggest country club in the world.

When I was working in Belgrade five years ago there was an almost schizophrenic personality that existed across the country. On the one hand, the people seemed entrenched in a depression and I was asked, a little mournfully, why I bothered to come to Serbia and why I liked Belgrade so much. Self-esteem was at a low ebb.

At the other end of the scale was a contrasting confidence and fierce pride in the fact that Yugoslavia was once a well-respected and prosperous nation. As leaders in many scientific and medical fields during the Yugoslavian heyday, they didn't need foreigners telling them what to do. And the status of Kosovo, as a topic of conversation, was definitely off-limits.

I returned late last year and things were markedly different. I met people more willing to talk about their experiences of the sanctions and the 1999 bombings. One doctor had been training in London when her husband convinced her it was safe to return to Novi Sad, a city north of Belgrade, because "things couldn't possibly get any worse". Just a few days later Nato air strikes destroyed roads, bridges and parts of the city.

Now we were sitting in a new family-run restaurant eating Mediterranean fare and talking about the fall of the British pound and Serbian dinar and shopping. Although their average monthly income is just 400 euros (£370), Serbs have discovered the mental benefits of retail therapy. And they feel a close link with the British. Most people will talk fondly about their Second World War ally in flawless English.

Kosovo is still a sensitive issue. The Serbs have the last 600 years of their history rooted there with the Kosovar-Albanians as relative newcomers. And although the Milosevic regime instigated the 1999 violence and massacre, the Kosovo Liberation Army made an equally vicious retaliation against the Serbs. Yet despite Kosovo's independence being at the top of the politician's agenda, day-to-day life now offers some future hope and excitement.

So a sort of recovery seems just around the corner. Now Radovan Karadzic is on trial at The Hague for war crimes, some of the heat has been taken off the ordinary Serbs. Although there is no atonement that could make up for the atrocities committed, there's a sense that these trials do bring closure for many people on opposing sides.
Only the spectre of alleged Bosnian-Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic now casts a shadow over Serbia's formal bid to join the EU.

Back in the thriving cafe culture of Belgrade, I worry that the city's charm and tranquility is being overtaken by the new state-of-the-art shopping mall complete with cinema complaex, bowling alleys and Costa coffee houses. But, although I think corporate retail chains and American-style shopping malls are the last thing that transition countries need as they oust family-owned shops and create a consumer society, they will bring further foreign investment and boost jobs.

They are also a good sign that Serbia is finally being accepted back into the fold.

I went to Kosovo in 2005 to report on the security situation and progress made on reintegrating ethnic Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. Forgotten Voices: Building Peace After War can be found at