A few days ago I was talking to a young woman in the Kosovan capital, Pristina. With independence in everyone's minds, I asked her how the city felt these days. "Good," she said. "We hope everything will be fine." The glum, demoralised cloud that had hung over the city had lifted. "Now people are smiling more. There is a sense of optimism and hope in the air," she said.
Her sense of hope - a hope without euphoria - in many ways captures what yesterday's declaration of independence is really about.
Whatever the pictures coming from Kosovo this week might suggest, this declaration of independence is not really about street celebrations and flag flying. Nor it is a piece of paper to wave from government buildings. For the people of Kosovo independence is about daily life; it affects their jobs, education, the passports on which they travel.
It is the promise of security: that no "new Milosevic" will one day force them to close their schools and universities or ban all media in their language. A guarantee that no army or paramilitaries using the state as a cover will make unlawful demands upon them, take their belongings, brand them terrorists, strip them of any identity papers and drive them out of their homes.
It is a final green light from the international community to restart their lives free from state-controlled order, fear and intimidation. It is an act that will pave the way for a speedier stabilisation of the entire region.
For two decades, while the world looked on, 2 million Kosovans lived in a limbo - punctuated by events in 1999, when the international community took over temporary administration of the region following the Nato action against Milosevic's forces. The disintegration of the former Yugoslavia had begun 10 years earlier, following the rise of Milosevic in Serbia and his decision to send the army to Pristina to secure what later became known as the "tanked constitution". The message that Milosevic sent to Kosovans spread fast around the rest of the country. Once the tanks started rolling, everyone knew they would just as easily reach Zagreb, Ljubljana, Skopje, Sarajevo, Podgorica. The first to benefit from the climate of fear was Croatian nationalist Franjo Tudjman. The rest is history.
It is against this background that one must view yesterday's historic events. This declaration of independence is the last chapter in the long and painful disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Its clearly defined borders, legal status within the former Yugoslavia and the violent and abusive treatment its people received during the break-up of their country marks out Kosovo as a unique case in international law. Nor is this declaration a unilateral act. It is a coordinated declaration based on broad international agreement.
It is quite wrong to paint it as an act that breaks international laws or norms. Instead, it amounts to the repair of laws that have been broken for two decades. A lawyer himself, the Serbian prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, should be the first to understand this. Contrary to the scare stories, Kosovo's independence does not deliver a precedent to any independence-minded territory. Just as Catalans are not using East Timor to claim their own independence, they will not be able to use Kosovo.
Moreover, Kosovo is a European problem. Ask any European if they wish to go through what Kosovans have suffered, and you can be sure that not many in today's Spain, Slovakia or Romania would claim that they would "die for such a chance". In time they may turn to Scotland or Belgium to see how a case for independence, if relevant, could be argued in a free and democratic society. If anything, Kosovo's independence will be a reminder for everyone in Europe that, if they abuse their ethnic communities, they risk losing them.
For the Serbian community in Kosovo, independence, together with the EU presence, offers them the best guarantee of security. Organised disobedience and attempts to revise borders along ethnic lines - in effect, partition - in a region full of "ethnic" pockets, could easily lead to a domino effect. One need not look as far as India and Pakistan to see the consequences of such attempts. We saw what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s. Europe cannot afford a repeat.
Even under the watchful eye of the international community, the Serbian government rarely talks about the people who live in Kosovo: be it Kosovan Albanians or indeed Serbs. It is because their concerns are territorial that they could afford to refuse any international proposal in the hope of paralysing the process.
Hard as it may be, Serbia needs to accept Kosovo's independence as the best solution for both parties. Only this will counteract stereotypes and prejudices in the Balkans and open new and constructive channels of communication, based on mutual respect.
Kim Bytyci, a Kosovan Albanian from Serbia and a journalist based in London.