U.S. Support of Kosovo Independence Proving Costly

Other News Materials 23 February 2008 13:14 (UTC +04:00)

(Los Angeles Times) - Kosovo's declaration of independence has touched off an all-too predictable spasm of violence and hostility in a region that emerged from devastating war scarcely a decade ago.

From an American Embassy in flames in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, to stone-throwing at NATO troops along the new unsteady border between Serbia and Kosovo, the anger of Serbs over the loss of a region they consider their cultural heartland is intense and dangerous.

And the U.S., which pushed for Kosovo's separation from Serbia and was among the first countries to recognize the new nation, will receive the brunt of Serbian fury. Far from stabilizing the region, as the Bush administration forecast, the move by Kosovo has launched a period of volatile uncertainty.

Riots in Belgrade on Thursday night, which left one person dead, 150 injured and more than 200 arrested, were the largest outburst of anti-Western rage since before the fall of dictator Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000.

The unrest represented what Ljiljana Smajlovic, editor of Serbia's influential Politika daily newspaper, said was a "tectonic shift" in Serbian public opinion that will carry far-reaching and unpredictable consequences.

Still, she and other Serbian analysts said in interviews Friday, an all-out war does not appear to be among those consequences for several reasons.

First, Serbia's military capacity is far diminished from the days when the then-Yugoslavia fielded Europe's fourth-largest army. Many of its generals and commanders ended up at the international tribunal at The Hague, charged with war crimes, because of the bloody campaigns they led to repress the breakaway states of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

And ethnic Albanians who dominate Kosovo and who deployed a ferocious guerrilla army to fight for their independence are on their best behavior while receiving favorable treatment from Western powers.

Second, there are 16,000 NATO troops deployed in Kosovo, plus a U.N. police force to give pause to any military challenges. The presence of international forces stands in marked contrast to 1992 Bosnia, for example, when civilians were left largely to the mercy of Serb paramilitaries, which resulted in three years of bloodletting before NATO stepped in to help stop the killing.

Perhaps most important, Serbia is a changed place. Milosevic, the architect behind most of the warfare of the 1990s, is dead. The past eight years in Serbia have seen the rise of pro-Western, democratic leaders who have fostered political reforms.

But many pro-Western leaders of Serbia now feel betrayed.

They spent the past few years extolling the virtues of Western international law and justice that included, they point out, the 1999 U.N. resolution that establishes self-rule for Kosovo but as part of Serbia. They see as the epitome of hypocrisy that Washington went around the U.N., sidestepping the Security Council because of Russian opposition, to approve Kosovo independence.

"This is a total disaster for people who are pro-Western and pro-European," Smajlovic said. "This helps radicals who say it was never about democracy and right or wrong, but all along about taking away from Serbia, about humiliating the Serbs."

Many of the fiercest demonstrators torching embassies Thursday night and shouting "Stop U.S. terror!" were young protesters who might have little memory of Milosevic but who came of age as NATO was bombing Belgrade in 1999 to punish Serbia for its attacks in Kosovo.

Cedomir Antic, a historian with the Institute for Balkan Studies, noted that in elections earlier this month, the ultranationalist Radical Party, while narrowly losing, had managed to quadruple its vote over balloting in 2001, in part because of Kosovo.

"People are very frustrated," Antic said. "The Serbian government is very united on the issue of Kosovo but very divided on where to go from here."

The division weakens the ruling democratic coalition and makes it possible the government will fall and the pro-Moscow Radicals, whose president is also on trial for war crimes at The Hague, will take over.

What seems most likely, however, is that low-intensity skirmishes along the Serbia-Kosovo border will continue unabated. On Friday, for the fifth consecutive day, Serbian protesters chanting "Kosovo is ours!" hurled stones and bottles at U.N. police who were blocking a bridge that divides the Serbian north in the flashpoint Kosovo town of Mitrovica from the Albanian south. Earlier this week, similar gangs torched customs and police posts at other crossings between the two entities.

The debilitating divisions within the Serbian government were accentuated Friday in exchanges over who was to blame for Thursday night's violence, which came at the fringes of an otherwise peaceful demonstration. The "Kosovo is Serbia" rally was sponsored by the government and convened 200,000 people.

President Boris Tadic, the most pro-Western of Serbia's top officials, who arranged to be away for the day, condemned the violence and said Friday the riots "must never happen again." Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a more nationalist politician, while saying the violence was wrong, praised the demonstrators for showing the U.S. government that it was wrong too.

Meanwhile, the European Union, some of whose members have recognized Kosovo, warned Serbia on Friday that it was in danger of losing its chance to join the 27-nation bloc if such hooliganism persisted.

"These acts of violence lead nowhere and they cannot help anybody," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said. He said initial talks aimed at prepping Serbia for eventual EU membership would be frozen until peace was restored in Belgrade.

Russia, Serbia's most loyal ally, threatened its own extreme measures. If NATO exceeds its mandate in Kosovo, Russia's ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said, "then I think we will also begin operating under the assumption that in order to be respected, one needs to use force."

Another of the potential consequences of Kosovo's independence is the unraveling of the region's delicate postwar balance, analysts say. Republika Srpska, the Serbian portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina, threatened to follow Kosovo's lead and secede. That could destroy the U.S.-negotiated country that emerged from the 1992-95 war, which is divided between a Serbian portion and a Muslim-Croat half.

And a sizable ethnic Albanian minority in neighboring Macedonia might find similar inspiration. It could be a tumultuous domino of secessions.

"I can't imagine anyone having the stomach for war now," Smajlovic said. "But independence for Kosovo will not stabilize the region. It will stir things up. Nationalism is on the rise. It is not going to be a happier, more stable Balkans."