Day By Day

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Belgrade is Burning

Approximately 200,000 Serbs attended a rally today protesting Western recognition of Kosovo's independence. Afterwards mobs surged through the streets attacking various embassies, including the American. The crowd briefly broke into the embassy and burned part of it.

Serbian President Boris Tadic urged rioters to stop.

"I appeal to our citizens to protest calmly. All those who take part in the unrest I want to withdraw from the streets and stop attacking foreign embassies," he said in a televised appeal. "This only keeps Kosovo distant from Serbia."

Rioters -- many wearing balaclavas and scarves to hide their faces -- had attacked the building with sticks and metal bars after destroying two guard boxes outside.

They ripped metal grilles from windows and tore a handrail off the entrance to use as a battering ram and gain entry.

One man climbed up to the first floor, ripped the Stars and Stripes off its pole and briefly put up a Serbian flag.

Other people jumped up and down on the balcony, holding up a Serbian flag as the crowd below of about 1,000 people cheered them on, shouting "Serbia, Serbia."

Black smoke billowed out of the embassy. Papers and chairs were thrown out of the windows, with doors wedged in the window frames and burning.

Some 200 riot police arrived later, driving the crowd away. Some protesters sat on the ground, bleeding. Fire engines arrived to put out the flames, local media reported.

Read it here.

Fox News reports that when police cleared the area a charred body was found -- apparently one of the protesters.

BBC video here.

WaPo coverage here.

We don't know yet whether this is a mere temper tantrum or not. It has the potential to escalate into something serious. The key seems to lie in Moscow. Serbia cannot act effectively against Kosovo without Russian sanction and protection. Putin has been acting ever more aggressively in the past few years, trying to re-establish Russia's status as a great power. The Kosovo situation might provide him with an opportunity to assert Russia's traditional role as the protector of Slavs against their Muslim enemies.

The other key lies in Western Europe. If Russian-backed Serbia takes action against the Kosovar Muslims will the EU or NATO respond, and if so, in what fashion?

Finally, a developing Balkan crisis will be a fascinating test for the presidential candidates in the US. Will Hillary defend or repudiate her husband's interventionist policy? Will she blame the current crisis on diplomatic failures? Will McCain be willing to bail out Europe again? And what about Obama? What will his position be? Is he willing to use military force to compel compliance with agreements forged in Western Europe?

Time will tell. Stay tuned.