Kosovo's independence weathers its first week

Serbia said it was hunting down rioters who torched the US Embassy in Belgrade Thursday as 120,000 protested the province's newly declared statehood.

Srdjan Ilic/AP
Orthodox allies: In the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica, Serbs held photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and signs saying, 'Russia, help!'

As Kosovo marked its first week of newly declared statehood Sunday, unrest in the region had echoes of the ethnic violence that plunged the Balkans into war in the 1990s. But despite Serb torching of border posts and the US Embassy in Serbia, few observers here expect a repeat of that decade.

They do warn, however, that Kosovo's newly declared statehood, as well as security in the region, will depend on how far the Serbs – and to an extent the Russians – are willing to go in their bid to keep Kosovo part of Serbia. Keeping a lid on Kosovo, where Serbs engaged in a seventh consecutive day of protesting Sunday, will also be vital.

The Serbian capital was quiet over the weekend after a 120,000-strong protest in Belgrade Thursday ended with several hundred rioters setting fire to the US Embassy, prompting a US staff pullout over the weekend. Serbia's top state prosecutor said Sunday that authorities were hunting for the instigators, and police said they had arrested 200 Thursday night. But some government officials have endorsed the violence, both in the capital and in the north of Kosovo – particularly in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.

"One minister said it was OK to break some glass during a demonstration, another said it was legal if Serbs burn down the border crossings, and you had some very tough anti-US speeches and statements by [Prime Minister Vojislav] Kostunica," says Braca Grubacic, editor of the VIP newsletter in Belgrade.

The Serbian capital has been quiet over the weekend, but Mr. Grubacic says that it could change, depending on events. "I do think that what might provoke further events in Belgrade would be if something happens down there in Kosovo – if you have clashes between Serbs and Albanians in the north, or between them in the [Serb] enclaves, or [NATO troops] versus the Serbs, it might spill over into here."

The conflict could also have reverberations in Russia, an ardent supporter of Serbia that had pushed for continued negotiations under United Nations auspices. In a speech Friday, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, suggested that Western support of Kosovo's independence bid without UN support leads his country to the conclusion that military force is necessary to make its point of view respected.

"Obviously, Russia will not take part in any kind of military operations in Kosovo, in the Balkans, or outside its borders in general. Russia has enough political and moral authority to defend international law, and that's what it's doing," said Mr. Rogozin. "But when the issue touches its own national interests, its borders, and attempts to repeat the Kosovo scenario on Russian territory, it will defend not only international law, but also its own sovereignty."

One retired former US Army and UN commander in Bosnia and Kosovo, Maj. Gen. William Nash (Ret.) says that despite the rhetoric, high-level contacts between Russia, the US, and the European Union will hopefully address some Serb concerns. But on the ground in Kosovo, he says, the situation is tricky.

"What I am concerned about is [that] inside Kosovo they have what I call a cycle of stupidity – provocation and retaliation – and without strong reaction by the security forces, the NATO soldiers and UN police, things could spiral out of control," says General Nash, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's one thing to throw rocks, it's another thing to throw hand grenades, and I'm worried that the provocation will be met by retaliation on an upward spiral."

Protests in Kosovo itself on the Mitrovica bridge have continued daily for the past week. Meanwhile, the northern Serbs are aiming to undermine the Kosovo institutions that the UN mission has tried to build since 1999. The 10 percent of Serbs that make up the Kosovo Police Service (KPS), for example, are currently taking orders only from the UN, and have said they will resign if forced to take orders from the Pristina-based KPS – the only local institution that provides security.

Observers do point out that Serbian military capability today is far from its early 1990s apex, when the then-Yugoslav National Army was the fourth-largest in Europe and its persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo led to a 78-day NATO bombing campaign. Serbia's defense minister has also repeatedly said Serbia would not use force to keep Kosovo. And Kosovo has around 16,000 NATO peacekeeping troops based within its borders, with others on the way.

But four well-placed military and security sources in the region contacted by the Monitor say that NATO forces are reacting to events rather than proactively making plans.

Nash disagrees with that assessment, but advises that the troops "need to be able to interrupt this cycle of provocation and retaliation and to have the resources to dominate the scene for the crowds that gather."

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