U.S. Ambassador Says Violence In Serbia 'Unacceptable'In the wake of the violence that broke out in Belgrade on February 21 in response to Kosovo's declaration of independence, U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Cameron Munter speaks to Branka Trivic of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service.
RFE/RL: Can you comment on the violence that broke out in Belgrade last week?
Cameron Munter: To emphasize a couple of points -- in the last few days, what we have noticed since the declaration of independence and the recognition by members of the international community, there has been a disturbing trend in the language used by some of the leadership of this country. Irresponsible hard-line nationalists, even in the government, have tried to equate what happened in Kosovo with violence. They have said, in essence, that because violence was done to us in Kosovo, violence is legitimate in response. In fact, no violence was done in Kosovo, there was a diplomatic decision that many in this country do not agree with. And that is certainly their right, and we are sympathetic to the fact that this is an emotional issue. But that was not violence. Violence is when a mob attacks an embassy, or when people threaten people elsewhere -- say, in northern Mitrovica -- and that is absolutely unacceptable.
Real violence is unacceptable, especially, if it comes, if it is incited by those who seem to think that they can equate a diplomatic decision with violence. We are very disturbed by that, we call on the government of Prime Minister [Voijslav] Kostunica to disavow this kind of language. The UN has called on specifically minister [for Kosovo Slobodan] Samardzic to stop this [inciting] language, and we demand that they do that. Because they are making a situation, which is very difficult for everyone -- more difficult for themselves, and ultimately this will lead to their diplomatic isolation, which no one wants.
RFE/RL: You sent a very strong message in reported comments, stressing that if attacks like those we saw on February 21 repeat themselves, you will resort to measures not seen thus far. Could you specify what you mean by this?
Munter: What I said in my interviews was that this better not happen again. OK? I'd given that very strong message to the government. Because of the way the events unfolded last Thursday, I have lost confidence that the government is committed to what, under international law, it is obliged to do -- to protect the embassies of the United States, of Germany, of Britain, of Croatia, of all the countries, who, in this case, had recognized Kosovo, all diplomatic establishments.
Until this government is willing to condemn violence, until this government is willing to do something about it, we cannot be confident in their actions. America wants to be a friend of this country, and I realize that many people in this country are not receptive of that message, and I understand that. But as long as there is violence, as long as there is no sense that this government is willing to protect diplomatic establishments, there is no way to move forward. And my feeling is that most people in this country, despite their own very heart-felt concerns about Kosovo, want to move forward to a better future. And, frankly, want to do it with us.
RFE/RL: What message did you give Prime Minister Kostunica while rioters were attacking the embassy?
Munter: [U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs] Nick Burns told him four things. Nick Burns said that he demanded that our embassy -- and embassies of the other members of the international community -- be defended. That the protesters, who had been allowed to come in -- because of the inner tension in the police -- be removed and prosecuted, arrested and prosecuted. That he state publicly this would never happen again. And that he would follow this with actions, making sure it would not happen again. Mr. Kostunica assured Mr. Burns that it would never happen again. I have not seen a public demonstration of this promise that he gave to Mr. Burns, and I call on the prime minister to make this promise that he condemns the violence, and promises it would never happen again.
RFE/RL: As you are probably aware, members of the government have said they were pleased with the job the police did on the night of the riots. Do you care to comment on this?
Munter: It is hard for me to believe that anyone of good will would be pleased by a situation in which the police failed to provide adequate protection, not only for us, the diplomats here, but even for the stores, for the people of this city, where rioters went on a rampage and destroyed a great amount of property. I can only imagine that he -- if he said this, or others said this -- that they are either misinformed, or that they are referring to something other than what I saw. That's the most charitable thing that I can say.
RFE/RL: Prime Minister Kostunica said that Serbia will not normalize relations with any of the countries that have recognized Kosovo until this recognition is revoked. What is your reply to this?
Munter: I am sorry to hear that, because I think most people in this country -- not the people who, in this sense, represent a kind of a hard-line nationalist position -- [but] most people in this county want to be part of the European mainstream. Most of the people in this country voted for Boris Tadic -- 2.3 million voters -- on the basis that this was the way to get them back into Europe, to get them back into the mainstream they deserve to be in, that they were in so many years ago in Yugoslavia, before the crimes of Milosevic brought them to the situation that they are today. So I think people want that, and I don't understand why it is in the interests of those people who this government represents, to try to push the country into isolation.
RFE/RL: Do you feel that the European Union was a bit too slow in extending promises that would allow Serbia to accelerate its path toward Euro-Atlantic integration? Some say the EU was too vague, and that too many conditions were placed on Serbia.
Munter: Entering the European Union is not a right, it is something you really have to fight hard to get. It is not something that I think the Europeans spend a lot of time begging people to do. The Europeans, in my opinion, have made it clear that they want Serbia to join. They want Serbia in, just as they want Kosovo in. just as they want to see all of the Balkans in, in a united and friendly situation. I don't think they have been too slow. I think that perhaps the signals have been misread here by some people. But I think that the conviction on the part of the European Union -- that Serbia is welcomed -- is very deep, and very strong.
RFE/RL: Do you expect Serbian-American relations to improve in the near future, or do you think they will deteriorate?
Munter: I have to tell you, that it was very, very disappointing for me, to see that the government of Serbia was unwilling to guarantee the safety [for] the American, and indeed the international community's diplomatic establishments and people. That surprised me. Because since I've been here, I've had a very, very positive experience, and I have been treated very well by Serbian people, and I've learned to trust them. This experience has made me cast doubt on that trust. So when answering your question, I have to say I am being very watchful. Because, even thought I have a great deal of faith in Serbian people, and I have a great deal of faith in the potential of this country -- just as our assistance programs put millions of dollars in this country, because we believe it can live a better life, because our investors come here, and create jobs for Serbs, because we believe they are good workers, and good friends. And because our military works with the military here, to train them, not only to defend Serbia, but to defend democratic interests around the world. I have a broad optimism. But that has been cast in doubt by the governments' apparent inability to guarantee our safety. So I have to say to answer your question -- I'll watch, and I'll see."
Kosovo Is An Elephant's Graveyard Of Diplomacy
Kosovo is diplomacy's elephant's graveyard, a bleak place where our best hopes and strategies and principles forlornly creep away to die.
There has been nothing uniquely special or principled or even self-evidently fair about the Kosovar Albanian majority's demand that a new independent state dominated by them be set up in Europe within Kosovo's current borders. What is undoubtedly remarkable is the single-minded way that community has focused on this ambition in recent decades, and how stunningly and consistently inept the Serbs have been in dealing with the problem.
The ethnic mix of the Kosovo population has ebbed and flowed down the centuries with different empires and wars and consequent rounds of ethnic cleansing. Nor has there been a consistent delineation of the territory defining Kosovo. But at least for most of the past 100 years most of Kosovo has been recognized by the rest of the planet as part of Serbia, albeit with an ethnic-Albanian majority. Numerous historic Serbian monasteries and other sites are there, attesting to long earlier periods of Serbian rule and Slavic civilization. So history does not suggest that a "winner takes all" Albanian victory now is obviously the right one.
I came on the case in February 1981 a few months after the death of Marshall Tito himself when I walked into HM Embassy Belgrade as the squeaky clean new second secretary political/information, to be told that there had been "disturbances" in Kosovo -- a startling development in the harmonious communist world. Kosovo at that stage was (like Vojvodina) an "autonomous province" within Serbia but with most of the attributes of a full republic within communist Yugoslavia, including, for example, a Kosovo representative in the convoluted eight-person collective Yugoslav Presidency.
These student-led disturbances were mobilized under the slogan "Kosovo -- Republic." Not a claim to independence as such, but an obviously handy step in that general direction. If ever Yugoslavia broke up, a republic was better placed to gain full independence than a mere province.
Some months after the disturbances, I was one of the first foreign diplomats allowed back in Kosovo. I picked up a genial local Albanian hitchhiker, who explained it all succinctly. "There are far more Albanians than Montenegrins. They have their republic. Why can't we have ours too? Our policy is simple. We are going to have lots more babies than the Serbs until they have to give us a republic!"
The local demographic trends did of course strongly favor the Albanians. A fact not lost on Serbia's leading writer and philosopher Dobrica Cosic, who back in 1984 told me that Serbia should aim for a painful deal on Kosovo: "better to cut off a cancerous leg to save the body."
The official Serbian default position, alas, was not to think. Instead crass oppression, partly in the form of an extended series of communist show trials. After farcical hearings lasting only a couple of days, sizeable groups of Albanians young and old would be sent to long terms of imprisonment for their part in the disturbances. Such blatant injustice in this human rights black hole in Europe not far from Rome helped create the radicalized Albanian militants of the late 1990s.
Not that anyone other than the inordinately freedom-loving Great Leader of Albania Enver Hohxa and the Kosovar Albanians objected. Everyone from Western conservatives through European social democrats and Marxist pseuds to Chinese/Soviet communist hard-liners and on to "nonaligned" Third World dictators (albeit for quite different reasons) wanted "stability in the Balkans," featuring above all the "territorial integrity of post-Tito Yugoslavia." If that meant the uppity Albanians (and their nasty calls for an "ethnically pure Kosovo") getting a severe thrashing (again), so be it.
But the Cold War ended. Yugoslavia ceased to be what my senior colleagues at the early 1980s embassy had claimed it was, a "pillar of stability in the Balkans."
Now the Kosovar Albanians could point to the unrelieved ghastliness of Slobodan Milosevic and start to turn parts of world opinion in their favor. However, let's remember that through their successive electoral boycotts they helped both create and sustain Milosevic's power, deliberately following a hard-core painful policy of "the worse, the better."
This explains why the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) have little if any sympathy for the Kosovo independence cause -- they suffered horrible losses from the Kosovar Albanians' studious passivity in the early 1990s, which allowed Milosevic and his villainous allies to hammer away at Bosnia without fearing a "second flank" against him in the south.
When Albanian insurgents/rebels/militants/terrorists (pick your epithet) did open that front in 1998, they knew they could count on a violent and excessive reaction from Milosevic. It happened.
And lo!, thanks to Milosevic it came about that for the first time in a thousand years the prospect of Albanians winning and Serbs losing in Kosovo started to gain some international approval. NATO intervened militarily against Serbia in 1999 to stop Serbian forces achieving a knockout victory.
This opened the way to the placing of the province under UN control but effectively on Albanian terms, thereby giving a de facto green light to Kosovo independence claims. Which now in part have been fulfilled, even if the international wrangling on Kosovo's status (and its ability to join international organizations) is set to drag on for a very long time to come. If not indefinitely.
Kosovo's independence in part builds on a strikingly ruthless and "un-European" single-mindedness. Serbia's former Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic in 2000 told me how an elderly Albanian in southern Serbia had put it to him straight: "Mr. Covic, you have two children. I have six. I am prepared to sacrifice two of my children to the cause. How many of yours are you prepared to sacrifice?"
This sort of thing is not what today's European leaders supported by foppish naifs who inhabit EU working groups are able to understand, let alone confront. So instead they park on the wobbly hope that because Kosovo's Albanians doff their caps and sign every human rights commitment we serve up to them, Kosovo's independence will be another beautiful expression of European modern multiculturalism.
In short, what?
Kosovo's declaration of independence as recognized so far by the United States, the United Kingdom, and a number of other countries gives some 2 million people a fair chance to run their own affairs after many decades of wretchedly incompetent and violent rule or attempted rule from Belgrade. Good.
But it also is an act of substantive ethnic partition of a democratic country in modern Europe, plus a formidable triumph for the most hard-line Kosovar Albanians and their relatives' extended organized crime networks. Above all, after we rightly plonked a Monty Python foot on Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia this looks like a victory for Greater Albania. And maybe not the last one?
This development also will represent a deeper radical change in Europe's post-Cold War logic. After having started disastrously when Yugoslavia began to collapse when the Cold War ended, Europe (or rather Western Europe) eventually lifted its game. In close and often rancorous but at least intelligent partnership with the United States and Russia, we together helped contain the crisis and then imposed a settlement on Bosnia-Herzegovina's warring communities plus Serbia and Croatia. This helped us all manage various messy situations dotted around the former Soviet Union.
Kosovo's independence by contrast has been achieved without clear EU unity (in itself a sign that something is not quite right) and in the face of strenuous if cynical opposition from Moscow. What exactly that portends for Russia's policy elsewhere and how we all react to it remains to be seen. But something important will have been lost.
It did not have to be this way.
In Bosnia we said to the three hostile communities: "Look, stop fighting! Get along with each other in a moderate way in a single state framework. No more Balkanization!" Just down the road in Kosovo we have said: "Er, oh dear, if you Albanians want to leave a democratic Serbia, who are we to stop you? Indeed, have lots of our taxpayers' money, with very few strings attached!"
Why is our former Yugoslavia policy dealing with the breakup of that modestly sized European country not based now on even minimal common-sense policy consistency?
This is more a psychological than political question.
It would have been reasonable to play this one very long -- to tell the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians that there would be no discussion of status until both had lifted their game and moderated their behavior toward significant European standards as part of a shared trajectory toward full EU membership.
Or we could have accepted reality with a small dash of fairness (sometimes a wise approach) and said that neither side wins all of Kosovo, so the territory has to be shared somehow, for example through formalized EU-supervised power-sharing. Or negotiated border changes. Or the creation of "entities" as underpinned the Dayton outcome in Bosnia. Or maybe something based on Swiss-style canonization.
The Serbs have put all these ideas and more forward, drawing on Europe's own myriad examples. These proposals have been treated with EU/U.S. disdain as a cheap trick intended to promote monoethnicity.
More importantly, the Kosovar Albanians have made clear that they would not respect any such nuanced approaches and indeed would simply brush them (i.e. us) aside. Neither Europeans nor Americans have been prepared to stand up to this. Nor have we been ready to allow Serbia to do so.
Thus it is that another notable building block from the Versailles Treaty following World War I finally falls away. Will independence settle the Kosovo Question? Yes. Exactly like that distant Versailles settlement did. Or didn't. On which timescale do we diplomats measure stability -- and success?
While we all wrestle with the fearsomely complex policy issues surrounding Kosovo, one overwhelming fact has to be faced.
It is that successive Serbian leaders, unerringly backed by stupidly populist Serbian media, have gone out of their way to offer the Kosovar Albanians, their fellow citizens, nothing but contempt.
Back in 2001-03, I tried to explain to then-President Vojislav Kostunica and his entourage that it made no sense to insist that Kosovo was part of Serbia but make no meaningful gestures toward its population. In principle they should be addressed as potential voters, not rabid sub-human enemies.
When, for example, a truck containing the bodies of Albanians massacred by Milosevic's forces was found in the Danube, I urged Kostunica's closest team to aim to win international praise by doing something such as organizing a decent high-profile ceremony in their honor and sending personal messages to all their relatives. I tried to get through to them that some sort of civilized European, human gesture would be right in itself, plus a strong sign that post-Milosevic Serbia understood the way international opinion was formed and wanted to be a nimble part of it.
Back came the appalling answer. "There are many mass graves in and around Belgrade from World War II -- what difference does another one make?"
Thus again Belgrade was not extending to the region's and their own country's Albanians a positive hand of friendship, but instead in effect another slap in the face. If Serbia's leaders really are trying to convince the international community of their moral and/or historical and/or political case to keep Kosovo, maybe this sort of thing -- as exemplified in its latest mode by trying to burn down the U.S. Embassy -- risks coming across as a bit...unpersuasive?
To sum up.
Kosovo enters a new historical phase separate from Serbia. Appropriate congratulations are due to Albanian will, expressed through steely self-sacrifice, wily use of force and bravura political marketing and manipulation.
What of the Serbs? Sometimes it happens that others get things they don't fully deserve. But when that happens you can't credibly complain much if you do get exactly what you deserve.
As far as Kosovo is concerned, having accepted and applauded a twisted and mean-spirited leadership for a very long time -- and now exulted at the burning embassy of a rather influential country that can make their situation better or worse -- our Serbian fellow-Europeans are ending up with what they deserve.
(Charles Crawford is a former U.K. ambassador in Belgrade in 2001-03. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)