Cekamo vas, "We’re waiting for you”. No doubt this slogan, tagged in capital letters on the walls of Belgrade and bespattered with red-painted drops of blood, did not escape Hillary Clinton’s notice on 12 October, when the US secretary of state for the first time crossed the bridge over the Sava River, where it empties into the Danube and the Pannonia region abuts the Balkans. That writing on the wall was no empty threat: last Sunday, groups of Serb far-right nationalists and hooligans – of a piece with the agitatorswho ran amok at the stadium in Genoa [see box below] – ravaged the capital in protest against the Gay Pride parade. This was a disastrous sign of intolerance from a countrywhose bid for EU accession is to be reviewed by the EU 27 this 25 October.

But Ms Clintonlauded the commitment of the police force and of president Boris Tadic: Nobody, she said, has made a greater effort towards integration with Europe as Serbia and its leaders. Washington is backing Belgrade’s European aspirations now that Serbia, after years of unregenerate revanchism, has finally agreed to engage with Kosovo and is waiting for the right moment – i.e. a substantial political quid pro quo – to arrestRatko Mladic, the general who massacred 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.

The Italian companies Fiat, ENI and, in the near future, Finmeccanica are bound to play a crucial role in Serbia. With Fiat’s investments in Zastava Automobiles, the former state-owned enterprise based in the city of Kragujevac, Serbia could be turning out 200,000 cars in a few years and exporting them to the tune of €1.3 billion p.a., which corresponds to nearly 20% of total Serb exports in 2009. Ten years after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic on 5 October 2000, these are among the most long-awaited tidings in a country where 30% of the workforce is unemployed and the cost of labour is about half of what it is in present-day Poland.

Nabucco diametrically opposed to South Stream

Foreign investments, which have exceeded €10 billion over the past decade – a respectable figure indeed –, are the driving force behind an economy that is preparing to privatise Telekom Serbia (€1bn). But to really take off, Belgrade also needs funding from Brussels for its infrastructure as well as cooperation with its former arch-enemies. Yugoslavia no longer exists, but a common Balkan realm persists, a "Yugosphere" – as neologised inThe Economist: an area of industry and trade in which Slovenians, Croats and Serbs have laid down their arms and resumed cooperation. The most recent proof is the trilateral joint venture that made it possible to reopen the rail line for goods trains alongPan-European Corridor No 10.

But the most crucial strategic moves on the Serb chessboard will concern pipelines. In all likelihood, this is where the first European section ofSouth Stream will lie, the Russian gas pipeline to be built in a joint venture with ENI and Turkey, which the Germans might also join.

The Serbijagas corporation, with solid ties to Russia’s Gazprom, has announced it will be ready to start in on the onshore part of the South Stream pipeline from late 2012. That would ensure it a clear-cut edge on Nabucco, the rival mega-project for gas transport to Europe. Backed by the US and the EU, Nabucco aims to bypass Russia by tapping directly into the Caspian Sea deposits and bringing the gas all the way into Austria, thereby breaking free from Moscow. This rationale is diametrically opposed to that of South Stream, which is to supply Europe with Russian gas along a route that bypasses the Ukraine and Belarus, two countries mired in gruelling gas clashes with Moscow.

Balkan mosaic is still fragmented

Ten years after the downfall of Milosevic, the Balkan mosaic is still fragmented by the after-effects of a past that seems to resist any and all change. Bosnia has just emerged from an electoral campaign that attested to its lingering ethnic strife.Kosovo, in the run-up to early elections, is striving to stay afloat in a mist of instability, compounded by Boris Tadic’s declaration on 12 October that "Belgrade will never recognise its independence".

The United States has compelling arguments in its hand to persuade Tadic that he’d be better off befriending Washington than Moscow. The secretary of state is prepared to back Serbia’s bid to join the EU – and NATO. That would be a decisive step for an army that is about to undergo a sea change: mandatory military service has been abolished and, from 2011 on, the Serb Vojska will be a professional force increasingly deployed on international missions.

Like NATO, the Americans, the Russians and Serbia’s neighbours, the Europeans are waiting for Belgrade to prove itself. Cekamo vas, "We’re waiting for you,” we might say to the Serbs, but this time around we want no hint of the usual sabre-rattling, intolerance or Yugo-nostalgia. On a hopeful note, the web domain ".yu", after continually losing whole pieces of itself on the map over the past ten years, has just been officially taken off the Internet: a digital demise that just might usher in a new generation of Serbs.

Translated from the Italian by Eric Rosencrantz