Page last updated at 14:01 GMT, Friday, 22 February 2008

Serbia faces crossroads over Kosovo

By James Robbins
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

The attacks on embassies in Belgrade, including the US embassy, were entirely predictable.

The embassies themselves were braced for the danger. The American embassy was empty when the rioters closed in. Most governments had little expectation that Serbia's security forces would do anything serious to stop the mob.

Attack on US embassy in Belgrade
The US has complained about a lack of police protection
The attackers were angered both by Kosovo's declaration of independence and then the swiftness of moves in Washington and many other capitals to recognise the infant state.

The symbolism of Kosovo as a heartland of Serb nationalism was very carefully nurtured and inflamed by Slobodan Milosevic. He may be dead, but the idea is not.

The fact that the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo has now broken free, or free to the extent that an internationally supervised form of independence allows, merely reignites a sense of victimhood in the hearts of some - by no means all - of the people of Serbia.

Angry reaction

Will Serbia's government live to regret its failure to protect the American and other embassies?

There is no doubting Washington's anger. This was an attack "by thugs... We have made known to the Serbian government our concern and displeasure that their police force did not prevent this incident," President George W Bush's spokeswoman, Dana Perino, told reporters.

European governments have echoed that.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, said he was "outraged" and urged condemnation by the UN Security Council.

Protesters arrive at Belgrade railway station for rally
The people of Serbia face a fundamental choice
"The embassy is sovereign US territory. The government of Serbia has a responsibility under international law to protect diplomatic facilities, particularly embassies."

The European Union has gone further. The man in charge of EU foreign policy, Javier Solana, says talks with Serbia on a co-operation agreement will now be put on ice until the violence in Belgrade stops.

That accord would be the first symbolic step towards Serbia joining the 27-nation bloc.

So the backlash has started, and Serbia faces a choice. Does it choose a path of rejection, and suffer the consequence - relative isolation in Europe as other Balkan states move slowly towards eventual membership of a huge political and trade bloc?

Or does it choose the path described by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice?

"We want a Serbia that is looking to its future and that future is in Europe," she said.

She said the status of Kosovo and its resolution "would allow Serbia to look forward, and to move on then with what it needs to do".

She was speaking before Kosovo declared its independence, of course. The temperature has fallen dramatically since then.

Road ahead?

So the people of Serbia face a fundamental choice in the next few years.

Serbia's President Boris Tadic likes to suggest that it can pursue two contradictory policies at the same time.

"Serbia will never recognize Kosovo, it wants to preserve its territorial integrity," he said this week. "But neither will it renounce its future membership of the European Union."

Those positions are irreconcilable. Serbia certainly does not have to recognize Kosovo as a precondition for entering years of tortuous negotiation with the EU about eventual membership.

But it is almost impossible to imagine the end of that process - Serbia as a full member of the European Union - as long as it refuses to accept the fact that it has lost Kosovo as part of a new order in the former Yugoslavia.

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