Q&A: The Roots of Serbia's Rage

When Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia on Sunday-a move fiercely opposed by both Serbia and its powerful ally, Russia-few expected a flawless transition. Nonetheless, on Thursday the world was shocked by images of tens of thousands of rioters in the streets of Belgrade, who set fire to the U.S. embassy and vandalized other prominent symbols of the West. This came after protesters overran two border posts between Serbia and the Serbian-majority northern part of Kosovo. Ambassador Frank G. Wisner, a longtime diplomat and the United States' envoy to the Kosovo status talks, spoke with Newsweek's Barrett Sheridan about the latest outbreak of violence in the long-afflicted Balkans. Excerpts:

Newsweek: You told the Council on Foreign Relations that you expected some violent incidents in response to Kosovo's declaration of independence, but did you expect anything of this magnitude?
Wisner:
I expected something along the order of the events we're seeing in Kosovo and on the Kosovo-Serb border. I did not expect the Serbian government to allow mobs to attack embassies in Belgrade. Serbia has obligations under the Vienna Convention to protect diplomatic establishments, and I would have thought that robust measures would be deployed to protect those embassies. But obviously they were inadequate, and Serbia is under obligations to make up for what has happened.

Did Serbian security forces stand down intentionally?
I can't say. There were certainly plenty of people wound up. The Serbian government's view that a dreadful international wrong has occurred [by recognizing a Kosovo state] is certainly, at a minimum, adding dry tinder to a fire.

Could the violence degenerate into something worse?
No, I think not. I see [continued] political demonstrations with a violent edge, like attacks on embassies. But as recently as Monday the president of Serbia said three times to the Security Council that Serbia will not condone violence.

But he represents the more moderate elements in the country.
Fair enough. But [the more radical] Prime Minister [Vojislav] Kostunica has said much the same, and claims to be very much a man of the law, and that violence is not appropriate.

Are the riots the responsibility of a radical fringe, or a broader popular movement?
I don't want to speculate, as I'm not close enough to Belgrade to know who's pushing them and who's involved. But there are radical elements in Serbia, and the atmosphere is wound up, and tensions are at a high pitch. So one can't rule out individual incidences of this nature. But of all the things that could have gone wrong, so far I am cautiously optimistic that we're seeing through a particularly important international event with not a minimum fallout, but not excessive fallout either.

So if this is the extent of the damage, then, we should consider it lucky?
I still think attacking embassies and burning them is a pretty dreadful event, and something that the Serbian government, as a Vienna Convention signatory, should never have allowed to happen.

What role is Russia playing at this point?
The Russians have made it clear they're bitterly opposed to the independence of Kosovo. At the Security Council, they urged the United Nations Secretary-General to block the implementation of independence, and told the Europeans they opposed their deployment of their police and justice missions [to Kosovo]. To my considerable satisfaction, the Russians received no support from any other member of the Security Council. The Russians have managed to isolate themselves.

What steps are U.S. officials taking?
We are prepared to support the new Kosovo. It is important to maintain a secure environment, and we will continue to have our troops play a part in the NATO deployment in Kosovo. There are already 1,200 American soldiers, a brigade, with the Kosovar force called K4. We should support this new state and live by our commitment to its independence.

Would that support include an expanded military presence if it becomes necessary?
At the moment I would say the NATO force is ample and up to any of the contingencies we've seen so far, and even better than those, by quite a degree. So no new force is required.

Even considering the rioting in Belgrade, do you consider this a step forward for the region?
This is the last piece in putting together the Balkan jigsaw puzzle of the former Yugoslavia. Kosovo can now move on and develop itself, and the region can settle down and begin to develop its trade ties, and work in harness for eventually entering into the European Union. It opens up a whole new field that was not possible when there was still an unresolved status for Kosovo.

So the rioting is merely a blemish on an independence movement that can otherwise be considered success?
Yes. One can appreciate the Serb's unhappiness: their national mythology has been built around the fact that the Serbian state was born in Kosovo, and it has their great battlefield, their monasteries. The sense of loss is acute.

But isn't it more than myths? The country seems split between Eastern-looking nationalists and Western-looking progressives.
Looking into the rearview mirror, all the way back towards medieval history, you're right. I think Serbs have gone through a terrible period. They were the kingmakers inside the former Yugoslavia. That now has ended, and Serbs have been driven out of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbs have fled or been driven out of Kosovo. It's a period of Serbian history that the history books will look upon as very black, very depressing, and very humiliating.

An anguish that expresses itself on the streets.
Yes, as often happens.