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Serbia: Commentary -- Mixed Signals From Belgrade

By RFE/RL analyst Patrick Moore Prime Minister Kostunica addressed the Belgrade crowd hours before the violence erupted (AFP) The Belgrade violence of February 21 provides fresh evidence that Serbia has yet to come to terms with its past and a political culture steeped in blame and denial -- nearly a decade after former President Slobodan Milosevic's lost wars against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on February 22 condemning the violence in Belgrade the previous day against the embassies of several countries that have recognized or are expected to recognize the independence of Kosovo. The resolution said that council members "condemn in the strongest terms the mob attack against embassies in Belgrade, which have resulted in damage to embassy premises and have endangered diplomatic personnel." The members also called on the Serbian authorities to ensure the missions' safety and praised unspecified measures taken by the authorities to remedy the situation.

By UN standards, this is strong stuff. The attacks took place after a mainly peaceful rally in central Belgrade was over. At that gathering, more than 100,000 people participated in a government-organized demonstration against the independence of Kosovo. Students and pupils were given the day off to attend, and free train transportation to the capital was provided. The opposition nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which is easily the country's largest single party, made its own arrangements to bring in large groups of its supporters.

Following the rally and a Serbian Orthodox church service, a group of about 1,000 people, described by some media outlets as young hooligans, stormed and set fire to parts of the U.S. Embassy. Belgrade has two soccer clubs, both of which have organized supporters who are well-known for their violent and nationalist proclivities, particularly when alcohol is involved. Other embassies targeted included those of Germany, Croatia, Bosnia, Turkey, and Britain.

An unidentified, charred body was later found on the premises of the U.S. Embassy. A BBC reporter at the scene said there were "few, if any, police" present when the hooligans arrived. He added that this was odd, considering that the U.S. Embassy was recently targeted by similar crowds. Former U.S. General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces in the 1999 Kosovo conflict, said on Canadian Television on February 21 that he found the prospect of Serbian officials' complicity in the violence plausible and "very disturbing."

Several U.S. State Department officials criticized the Serbian authorities for not providing adequate security for the embassy. Spokesman Sean McCormack said that Washington will hold Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to his pledge that the incident will not be repeated. McCormack noted that several leading Serbian officials recently appeared to justify political violence. Among the comments he may have been alluding to was one by Kostunica-ally and Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, who said that NATO "broke our whole country. What's a few windows compared to that?" Furthermore, Slobodan Samardzic, who is Serbia's minister for Kosovo, said that attacks on two customs posts on the frontier with Kosovo on February 19 were "legitimate...even if they weren't nice."

At the mass rally on February 21, Prime Minister Kostunica said in reference to Kosovo's independence: "is there any other nation on Earth from whom [the Western powers] are demanding that they give up their identity, to give up [their] brothers in Kosovo? Nobody in Serbia will ever have the right to agree to that," international media reported. President Boris Tadic said in Bucharest that Serbia will never accept Kosovo's independence. In fact, most leading Serbian politicians take a tough line on Kosovo, not least because early general elections are widely expected later in 2008.

But following the attacks on the embassies on February 21, Tadic and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, both of the Democratic Party, condemned the violence as counterproductive and as damaging to Serbia's image. Tadic said that "these actions do not contribute to the defense of Kosovo, or the defense of our integrity and dignity. They only take Kosovo away from Serbia." A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman told RFE/RL that she appreciates Tadic's remarks, as well as an appeal at the rally by Kostunica against violence.

SRS General Secretary Aleksandar Vucic also urged protesters not to engage in violence. He added, however, that the attacks on the embassies are "a lesson for all those who have been provoking Serbs and people in Serbia on a daily basis, and who continue to do so. They are guilty as much as those who took part in the violence."

Observers both in Serbia and abroad have long feared that Serbia's hard-core nationalists might turn on local moderates in order to vent their frustrations over Kosovo. In fact, the Belgrade independent broadcaster B92 issued a statement on February 21 in which it said that "attacks and threats towards B92 have always intensified" at times of "dramatic" political developments. The statement added that "unfortunately, this is the case now.... For the last couple of days, threats have seriously escalated, both via electronic messages as well as on internet forums, where B92 receives open threats from people who discuss their plans to set our building on fire.... They even went one step further, producing video clips in which our journalists are being shot at. On [February 17], the window of our B92 Shop downtown was broken." The broadcaster stressed that "the statements of local officials, who justify violence in Belgrade and throughout Serbia, presenting it as democratic, only bring on more additional violent outbursts, instead of calming things down by clearly condemning such attacks."

On February 22, the Belgrade daily "Danas" warned Serbs against emotional responses to Kosovo's independence. The paper noted that small countries in general should recognize that their options are limited in making their views felt abroad. "Danas" recalled that West Germany tried for its first 20 years to deal with East Germany by cutting off ties to any countries that had relations with the east, only to realize later that engagement was the best course for West Germany -- and its economy. The paper said that Serbia should avoid following the negative example of Hungary between the two world wars, which in vain subordinated its foreign policy entirely to promoting the cause of regaining its 1914 frontiers.