Monday, February 25, 2008

Serbia's choice

Serbia's choice

For Americans, last week's fiery attack on the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade evoked unpleasant memories of the more calamitous Iran hostage crisis three decades earlier in Tehran, when 52 U.S. diplomats were held for 444 days.

For Serbs, the violence underscores the stark choice they face about their future. They can either stick with the nationalist pipe dream promoted by the late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, or they can enter the modern world.

The ghost of Milosevic hung over the attacks on the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic compounds. It is his specter, and all the madness it symbolizes, that needs to be put to rest.

(Photo — In Belgrade: A rioter throws a street sign into the burning U.S. Embassy on Thursday.  / By Marko Drobnjakovic, AP)

The immediate trigger of the riots was that the United States and others recognized a declaration of independence by Kosovo, the latest part of the former Yugoslavia to break away. For many Serbs, that recognition was like waving a red rag at a bull. Although Kosovo has for decades been a semiautonomous province of Serbia, inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians, for Serbs it is not just any old piece of land.

Kosovo has so much significance for Serbs that it was where Milosevic chose to make a speech in 1987 that ignited his ruinous wars for a Greater Serbia. Even though few Serbs live there, it is the place they consider the cradle of their civilization, and it is littered with Serb monuments and monasteries.

Yet the hard reality is that Kosovo is not going to be part of Serbia again. It has been administered by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO fought a war against Serb troops sent to ethnically cleanse the province. Although violence in the Balkans has subsided in the past decade, tensions continue to simmer. Russian President Vladimir Putin has played a singularly unhelpful role in stirring the pot and encouraging Serb stubbornness; Russia blocked U.N. recognition of Kosovo in the Security Council, putting its declaration of independence into a legal limbo and reviving Cold War antagonisms.

As for the Serbs, recent elections showed them split fairly evenly between stubborn nationalism, including intransigence over Kosovo, and the opportunities of European Union membership that come with facing reality. Voters narrowly re-elected a more pro-Western president, Boris Tadic.

Serbs are suffering badly from their isolation from Europe. Once the most prosperous center of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia has become an economic backwater with about 20% unemployment.

If there's any hopeful news, it is that younger Serbs, for the most part, tend to side with the future. They'd rather join Europe and end their isolation than keep Kosovo. Over the weekend, the world condemned the violence in Belgrade. That should help send a two-pronged message to Serb leaders: They have an obligation to protect embassies — and the best choice for their nation's future is to banish Milosevic's ghost.

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