Serbia gives reminder of defiance under Milosevic

By Vesna Peric Zimonjic
Saturday 23 February 2008 01:00

Serbia's relationship with the EU is in crisis after Belgrade's failure to intervene to halt violence sparked by the West's endorsement of Kosovo's independence.

After almost eight years of bridge-building with its European neighbours, Serbia this week witnessed scenes reminiscent of the Milosevic era. Anti-Western feelings have been stoked by the authorities with even American television shows pulled off state television. An attack by rioters on the US embassy on Thursday night left one person dead and has raised fears of further violence.

The US and UN condemned the events in Belgrade but the EU warned that a failure to clamp down on violence could harm Serbia's prospects of eventual EU membership and the promise of millions of euros in aid and free trade concessions. "These acts of violence lead nowhere and they cannot help anybody," said the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. "Things will have to calm down before we can recuperate the climate that will allow for any contact to move on the Stabilisation and Association Agreement."

His rebuke came as EU defence ministers met in Slovenia to consider their reaction to the crisis and the risk of violence spreading to Serb parts of Bosnia. The EU commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn, said: "I appeal for calm in Serbia and in the wider region. We urge all Serbian politicians to call for restraint and avoid statements that could further inflame the situation."

But President Vladimir Putin yesterday issued a sharp warning to the West about the consequences of recognising Kosovo's independence. The comments, made during an informal meeting of leaders from ex-Soviet republics, were the strongest by the Russian leader since Sunday when Kosovo made its declaration of independence.

"The Kosovo precedent is a terrifying precedent," he said. He added that those who have recognised Kosovo "are miscalculating what they are doing. In the end, this is a stick with two ends and that other end will come back to knock them on the head someday."

The recent election of the pro-Western president Boris Tadic had bolstered hopes that Serbia would move to tighten ties, eventually leading to inclusion in the EU family, but the declaration of independence by Kosovo has revitalised the nationalist hardliners, including the Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

After blocking the signing of an interim agreement with the EU earlier this month, he helped organise Thursday's rally of a 250,000 people. "[It] was magnificent and showed what the people of Serbia thought about Kosovo," said Mr Kostunica. "Most of all, Serbia's youth has sent a message that Serbia is for law, justice and freedom and that it rejects the bullying policy of Western countries."

But it was from this crowd that several hundred young men broke off to smash their way into the US embassy. Police yesterday confirmed that the charred remains of a young man had been found in the embassy, but did not reveal his identity, and said that they had arrested almost 200 people. Around 130 people were injured in the clashes, including 50 police officers.

Belgrade residents expressed anger at the government for not moving to curb the violence sooner. For many, the atmosphere is reminiscent of the anti-Western sentiment whipped up into a fury following the Nato bombing in 1999, when Mr Milosevic was trying to cling to power and prevent the collapse of what remained of Yugoslavia. Different nationalist groups are also distributing leaflets in the capital with calls for a boycott of international banks and imported goods in shopping malls all over Serbia.

"This is ridiculous," said analyst Misa Brkic. "More than 35,000 people in Belgrade work in international banks, which are mixed Serb and international companies. Self-isolation of such kind can bring nothing good."

This was a view echoed across the new border in Kosovo, by the Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci. In an interview with AP, he called on Serbs to reject old habits: "My message to Serbs in Serbia is to look forward and not to work with the mentality of the past, with the mentality of Milosevic's time."

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