Flames issuing from the U.S. embassy in Belgrade on Thursday underscored the mounting rage in Serbia over Kosovo's Western-backed declaration of independence. The embassy was unguarded when several hundred demonstrators attacked, following a protest rally by hundreds of thousands of protesters. At that larger rally, held earlier, the sharp divisions that typify Serbian politics were nowhere to be seen, as leaders from across the spectrum united in a massive show of force to protest Kosovo's secession from Serbia. As banners bearing messages such as "Kosovo is Serbia" were hoisted, the country's leading politicians were joined by the likes of filmmaker Emir Kusturica. Even Australian open tennis champion Novak Djokovic beamed his support via video link.
But the protest turned deadly when several hundred hooded protesters broke away from that 500,000-strong crowd. The smaller group hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at the Croatian and U.S. embassies. Flames licked up to the second floor of the old brick building which is located in the heart of the capital. Serbian paramilitary police, arriving in Humvees, dispersed the crowd using tear gas. But firefighters later discovered a charred body in a lower room. The embassy had been largely empty at the time and it was not immediately clear whether the body was that of a protester or an embassy employee. Speaking at the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad condemned the attack, saying he would seek a U.N. resolution "reminding the Serb government of its rsponsibility to protect diplomatic facilities."
The procession had started at the Parliament, wending its way through damp Belgrade streets to the monumental St. Sava Church, the largest Serbian Orthodox church in the Balkans. There, high priests delivered "prayers for Kosovo." The former Russian dissident and Nobel Laureate Aleksander Solzhenitsyn sent greetings from his home in the U.S. state of Vermont, calling on Serbs to "stand by your graves." (Kosovo is the site of a famous defeat at the hands of the Ottomans that is deemed a cradle of Serbian identity.)
Thursday's demonstration follows a week of orchestrated outrage, during which, among other things, no fewer than ten McDonald's outlets were vandalized, and a local supermaket chain was targeted because of its Slovenian owners (Slovenia currently holds the rotating EU presidency), as were Albanian sweet shops and bakeries. (Albania has consistently supported the secession struggle of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.) More than 80 people were injured in those protests, most of them police.
In the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo, meanwhile, Kosovo Serbs descended on two border posts, torching one and blowing up the other, before NATO troops from the territory's 16,000-strong peacekeeping force arrived to take control of the posts. There were no casualties. Local Serbian leader Marko Jaksic, the head of the self-styled Serbian National Council in the northern town of Mitrovica, justified the attacks, saying that Serbs will not tolerate "symbols of a monster state" on their territory.
Serb anger was intensified by the European Union's decision this week to dispatch up to 2,000 civilian experts to help administer the newly declared state, a move that most Serbs see as a form of recognition because the mission will likely replace the United Nationsapproved administration in the territory. (The EU failed to reach unanimity on the issue, leaving the decision up to its member states.) Serbia's ambassadors have been recalled from the U.S., France, and other countries that have recognized Kosovo's independence.
"We are struggling for what is legitimately ours. We will not tolerate this illegal act of secession," Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told European lawmakers in the French city of Strasbourg.
Although Kosovo's declaration of independence has been expected for months, the scale of the response both among Serbs and by foreign governments opposed to the decision has surprised many. It is not clear how long the protests will be sustained, but for many Kosovo Albanians, as well as U.N., EU and NATO officials in the territory, it has gone on long enough.
"Some local leaders took a huge responsibility yesterday," the French general in charge of NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo said on Wednesday after violent protests in northern Kosovo. "The leaders should think deeply of their responsibility when they trigger this type of demonstration."
But Serbs opposing Kosovo's independence will certainly take heart from the fact that Russia, China and a number of European Union members, including Cyprus, Spain, Romania and Slovakia, have refused to recognize the new state. Russia and China can block Kosovo's access to the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, and the refusal of some EU member states to recognize the country could complicate decision-making over the future EU mission in the territory. Opponents of independence fear that the move will set a dangerous precedent for separatists elsewhere, and Russia has been particularly vigorous in its opposition to what it sees as Western encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence.
The more immediate danger, however, is the prospect of a partition of Kosovo itself, and the potential confrontation that could ignite. The Serbian majority that lives in the northern part of the territory refuse to recognize the authority of the central government in Pristina, and insists on remaining part of Serbia. Belgrade supports the civil administration of that territory, and plans to increase spending on the Serb population there. While Belgrade said it did not order the attacks on border posts, Serbian Minister for Kosovo Slobodan Samardzic called them "legitimate" and "in accordance with the government's policy."
The impact of the Kosovo move on Serbia's domestic politics has been to strengthen the hand of nationalists who would like to see Serbia turn away from Europe and towards Moscow. The recognition of Kosovo by many European Union members, said Energy Minister Aleksander Popovic in a recent interview, could sour Serbs on the idea of joining the EU any time soon. Popovic likened the situation to a groom discovering something unsavory about his betrothed on the eve of marriage. "What do you do then?" he asked.
With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade