A SERBIAN leader delivered another demonstration Thursday of why it was necessary for NATO and the United Nations to intervene to protect the province of Kosovo and then to guide it to independence. Appearing before a large rally in Belgrade orchestrated to protest Kosovo's independence declaration on Sunday, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica incited Serbs against the United States and other governments that had recognized the new state. Then his police melted away from the center of the city, allowing an organized group of masked thugs to attack the U.S. Embassy, where they broke in and set a fire. The embassies of Croatia, Turkey, Bosnia, Belgium, Germany and Britain were also attacked.
When Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns called Mr. Kostunica to demand protection for the U.S. Embassy, the prime minister duly offered promises. Yet his behavior hardly differed from that of Slobodan Milosevic, the strongman who spent the 1990s stoking an ugly strain of Serbian nationalism, inciting his compatriots against their neighbors and then portraying himself as a victim when violence erupted. Mr. Milosevic's tactics caused the breakup of Yugoslavia, a horrific civil war in Bosnia and finally the NATO intervention in Kosovo, where years of state-sponsored persecution of the Albanian majority culminated in an ethnic cleansing campaign by Serbian soldiers and police.
Mr. Kostunica portrays himself as a champion of Serbia's continuing claim to Kosovo, where Serbs make up less than 10 percent of the population. His incitement of the attacks on embassies may have been part of an effort to dissuade other governments from joining the more than a dozen countries that have recognized Kosovo's independence. Yet the only consequence of his actions will be to isolate Serbia -- again -- from the rest of Europe and freeze -- again -- the modernization of its creaky post-communist economy. The winner will be Russia, which would like Serbia to join Belarus as an isolated and impoverished dependency, and which has been doing its best to encourage Serb extremism.
The odd thing about all this is that Mr. Kostunica's platform of rejecting the West was defeated in a national election held just two weeks ago. The winner of that election, President Boris Tadic, has a mandate to lead Serbia toward joining the liberal democracies of the European Union in spite of Kosovo's independence. Mr. Tadic, who was out of the country on Thursday, said yesterday that the attacks on embassies must "never happen again." That will be the case only if Mr. Tadic finally leverages the Serbian majority against the poisonous nationalist posturing of those such as Mr. Kostunica.