TOPICS > Politics

Experts Weigh Serbian Unrest Over Kosovo’s Future

February 22, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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The U.S. began evacuating embassy staff and their families from Belgrade, Serbia, Friday after rioters attacked the American embassy to protest U.S. support for Kosovo's independence. Experts on the Balkans examine the roots of the unrest and the future for Kosovo.
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JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez has our Serbia-Kosovo story.

RAY SUAREZ: Security was heavy today outside the charred U.S. embassy in Belgrade, as residents of Serbia’s capital came to see the destruction. Some echoed the commentary in this morning’s Serb newspapers that blamed the mob for taking things too far.

SERBIAN CITIZEN (through translator): They shouldn’t have broken and damaged everything. That deserves punishment. But I am in support of the demonstration and protecting our country and our nation.

RAY SUAREZ: Hundreds of thousands of Serbs took to the streets yesterday to protest the U.S. recognition of an independent Kosovo.

Later, a crowd of about 100 broke off, setting part of the U.S. embassy ablaze. One charred body, believed to be a protester, was found in the building.

Until last Sunday, Kosovo was part of Serbia, and a region Serbia considered its historical heartland. Serb nationalists also took aim at other U.S. interests in Belgrade, including this McDonald’s.

Embassies of other nations that have recognized Kosovo’s independence, like Turkey and Britain, were also targets. More than a dozen countries, led by the U.S., have now officially recognized Kosovo.

Yesterday’s were the most violent demonstrations in five days of protests following the declaration of independence.

Kosovar authorities are also stepping up security along the border. Busloads of Serbs have crossed into Kosovo in recent days.

Many joined protests in Mitrovica, an ethnically divided city in the north. Today, rioters hurled stones at U.N. police there who were guarding a key bridge that separates the city.

At the same time, the Serb government presented a divided front. First, President Boris Tadic spoke in Romania.

BORIS TADIC, President, Serbia (through translator): I appeal to everyone taking part in riots or disorder to pull back from the streets and stop attacking the embassies. It does not contribute to the defense of Kosovo or to the defense of our integrity and dignity. It only distances Kosovo from Serbia.

RAY SUAREZ: But Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told a crowd Kosovo would always be part of Serbia.

VOJISLAV KOSTUNICA, Prime Minister, Serbia (through translator): Is there anyone among us who is not from Kosovo? Is there anyone among us who thinks that Kosovo is not ours?

Kosovo, that is the first name of Serbia. Kosovo belongs to Serbia, and Kosovo belongs to Serbian people. That’s how it was in the past, and that’s how it is going to be in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. reacted swiftly. It blamed lax Serb security outside the embassy and pushed through a U.N. resolution that condemned the attack.

America’s U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: I’m outraged by the mob attack against the U.S. embassy in Belgrade. The embassy is sovereign U.S. territory. The government of Serbia has a responsibility under international law to protect diplomatic facilities, particularly embassies.

RAY SUAREZ: The State Department also ordered an evacuation of all nonessential American personnel and their families from Belgrade. There are about 100 American employees at the embassy.

Fiery speeches and protests

Obrad Kesic
International Consultant
The reports that we're getting back from Belgrade is at least a half a million people were out on the street last night. This would make it one of the largest demonstrations since the time of ... demonstrations against Milosevic.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the renewed violence in the Balkans, we get the views of a Serbian-American and an Albanian-American who have lectured, together and separately, around the United States.

Obrad Kesic travels frequently to Serbia. He's an international consultant whose clients have included the State Department and the Defense Department.

Elez Biberaj is director of the Eurasia Division of the Voice of America, but the views he expresses on the program tonight are his own.

Obrad Kesic, you had a very large crowd in Belgrade. You had a fiery speech by the prime minister, rising anger against the United States. Was the embassy properly protected?

OBRAD KESIC, International Consultant: I think that the authorities in Belgrade are going to have to investigate and deal with that question. It's a legitimate question, in terms of the preparation for the demonstration.

I think the size really surprised people. People expected a couple hundred thousand people. The reports that we're getting back from Belgrade is at least a half a million people were out on the street last night. This would make it one of the largest demonstrations since the time of the opposition demonstrations against Milosevic, during that time.

RAY SUAREZ: Elez Biberaj, what do you make of the attack on the American embassy last night?

ELEZ BIBERAJ, Eurasia Division, Voice of America: There's no question that there was a breakdown somewhere in the chain of command. It is not really clear whether a decision had been deliberately made at the higher ups or it was at a local level of the police forces. But the civil authorities...

RAY SUAREZ: You're saying to purposefully leave the embassy unprotected?

ELEZ BIBERAJ: Right, yes. There's no question that there are elements within the Serbian government, within the Serbian establishment who were interested in further aggravating relations between Serbia and the United States and the European Union.

Given the size of the demonstration, it was to be expected that there would be some trouble. It's also very intriguing, why did it take the police forces so long to really come to the embassy? Apparently, it took the police forces up to an hour before they really showed up and dealt with the people who had entered the embassy compound.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the violence today at the border between the new state of Kosovo and Serbia? Buses, fleets of buses heading down to the border, people doing violence in the streets of a border town, is this being done at least with the government's passive approval?

OBRAD KESIC: Well, first of all, the government's not in control in Kosovo itself. The U.N. is in control in Kosovo. So to talk about the Serbian government's active involvement in some way in provoking the demonstrations has to take into account that it's the U.N. and the international peacekeepers, both military and the police, that really have control in terms of peace and security issues on the ground there.

Secondly, it's very important to say that, as you saw, many Serbs feel very emotionally about this issue of Kosovo. And the Serbs that live in Kosovo in particular are at the brunt of any political decisions that are made, either in Washington or in other European capitals.

The Serbs in Kosovo have gone through, since 1999, a period of retribution, where they have been targeted and singled out for revenge attacks on the part of extremist Albanians in Kosovo. You have tens of thousands who have been burned out of their homes.

People live in ghetto-like situations in Kosovo today. You've had over 150 churches and monasteries that have been burnt down in Kosovo.

And so the concern that you see on the part of the Serbs in Kosovo that are currently living there is a very real concern. And it's a concern that, up until this point at least, since 1999, since NATO has been on the ground, hasn't been adequately addressed by the international community.

Kosovo needs protection force

Elez Biberaj
Broadcast Journalist
We are very likely to see a continuation of demonstrations and some violence, but NATO has the force to deal with these issues, if it really has the political will, and I think it does have that political will right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mr. Biberaj, you heard your colleague talk about the responsibility of NATO in this regard, but Kosovo has declared its independence. Is there any Kosovar force that can both protect the Serb minority and maintain the peace, or do they depend on NATO for this?

ELEZ BIBERAJ: North in Mitrovica is a flashpoint, and that is what we really need to look at in the next few days or few weeks. For all practical purposes, that part of the independent state of Kosovo is really part of Serbia.

Belgrade has already laid the ground for the partition of Kosovo. And the Albanian authorities are not in control of that area. So it is up to the NATO-led troops to really deal with any riots, any large-scale demonstrations, or any violence in that part.

It is clearly not in the interests of the Albanians who just proclaimed independence to take any moves to, quote, unquote, "liberate" this part of Kosovo, because that would just invite more trouble from Serbia.

But NATO, if it's really very serious about recognizing the independence of Kosovo, NATO will have to deal -- and I honestly think that NATO is in a position, the NATO-led force is in a position to manage the situation.

We are very likely to see a continuation of demonstrations and some violence, but NATO has the force to deal with these issues, if it really has the political will, and I think it does have that political will right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think it does, that the 16,000 NATO troops on the ground can manage this task?

OBRAD KESIC: Well, I hope and I pray that they do have the political will, but I think what we're seeing in Europe in particular is very disturbing.

The fact that the European Union hadn't been able to reach a consensus over the Kosovo issue, so that they allowed it to individual states to decide whether they would recognize independence is very discouraging, because those same countries make up the force that's on the ground in Kosovo.

And up until this point, as I mentioned before, the record in protecting minorities in Kosovo has been a very bad record on the part of the international community.

Now you have a situation where the political will is lacking on the part of some European states to really get involved politically in imposing the institutions of this new state on all of the citizens of that new state.

So you have the European Union, in particular, in a position where they're going to have to make a tough decision. Are they going to use force in order to get the Serbs that live in the north to recognize and to try to force them to become loyal citizens of this new state, which I think is an impossible task? Or are they going to have to back down and allow basically a de facto partition of Kosovo itself?

Surprise all round at declaration

Obrad Kesic
International Consultant
It was a surprise. Even though that there was talk about this, but there was hope, especially amongst Serbs, that there wouldn't be any drastic move to recognize, any proclamation of [Kosvo's] independence.

RAY SUAREZ: Just in the past week, you've seen burning border stations and police stations, riots and pitched battles on the street, the burning of embassies. Was anybody surprised by the Kosovar declaration of independence? Hadn't this been talked about in Europe and in Serbian circles for months?

OBRAD KESIC: It was a surprise. Even though that there was talk about this, but there was hope, especially amongst Serbs, that there wouldn't be any drastic move to recognize, any proclamation of independence. The declaration itself wasn't a surprise.

What was a surprise to many Serbs were the recognition on the part of the United States and some of the European states, even though that has been telegraphed, as well.

The fact is, is that Serbs counted on the international community -- in particular, Washington and many of the European states -- to abide by international law in Security Council Resolution 1244.

The Serbs feel right now tremendously betrayed. They feel that they've committed themselves to a course that has led to reforms, to a road that leads to integration into Europe, and yet the same countries within the European Union now are abandoning one of the basic foundations of the European Union, which is respect for international law.

As a result, the surprise has been, really, the depth of the passion that the Serbs have expressed on the streets concerning the Kosovo issue.

As you know, most polls have shown that Serbs tend to put the Kosovo issue as a secondary issue of importance to their everyday well-being. I've always felt this was misleading when it comes to the polls, and I think we're seeing that. Many Serbs feel very strongly and very emotionally about the question of Kosovo.

Kosovo 'ready' but struggling

Elez Biberaj
Broadcast Journalist
In terms of Kosovo itself, the Kosovar society has made a lot of progress in the ethnic cleansing in the war in 1999. They have built institutions. They've had several elections which were fully in conformity with international standards.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Obrad Kesic talk about the surprise, but what about Kosovars? Are they ready? Are the institutions in place? Was this a place that is ready to be a functioning nation?

ELEZ BIBERAJ: I believe that Kosovo is ready for independence and, in fact, has been ready for independence for a very long time.

If I may just refer to what my colleague, Obrad, said about disagreements within the E.U., the Kosovo issue is a success story, as far as U.S.-E.U. cooperation goes. This was managed almost in a perfect way.

Of course, it was preferable to handle the issue, the final status issue, at the U.N. Security Council, but Russia blocked that. There has now been recognition by the United States and by the main members of the European Union.

In terms of Kosovo itself, the Kosovar society has made a lot of progress in the ethnic cleansing in the war in 1999. They have built institutions. They've had several elections which were fully in conformity with international standards.

Will the new state have a lot of challenges ahead of it? Absolutely.

First of all, it is not a fully independent state. It is the Ahtisaari plan, the U.N. plan, which was put together by Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, provides for a period of supervised independence. So you will have an E.U. civilian mission there helping the Kosovars.

Kosovo faces all sorts of problems: The economy is in shambles. You have unemployment probably at 40 percent. But it is a young population. It has a lot of resources. And it has a pretty impressive political and economic elite, which compares rather favorably with the elites we see in countries which have had independence for a long time.

RAY SUAREZ: Elez Biberaj, Obrad Kesic, gentlemen, thank you both.

OBRAD KESIC: Thank you.