Serbs Experience Deja Vu After Riots

Serb demonstrators marched for a sixth day Saturday in northern Kosovo, protesting its secession from Serbia. In Belgrade on Thursday, the protests turned violent as rioters attacked and set fire to the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. State Department has ordered all nonessential employees and diplomats' families to leave.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Andrea Seabrook is on assignment.

Serb demonstrators marched for the sixth day today in Northern Kosovo, protesting its independence from Serbia. In Belgrade this week, the protests turned violent as rioters attacked and set fire to the U.S. embassy on Thursday. That prompted the U.S. State Department to order non-essential employees and diplomats' families to leave.

In a few minutes, we'll be speaking with a senior U.S. diplomat about the situation, but we begin our coverage with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli who's in Belgrade.

Sylvia, what's the mood there in the Serbian capital two days after those riots?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, there's a sense of shock and frustration and a bit of deja vu. So often in the past 20 years, even when they've got a valid point to make, Serbs often shoot themselves in the foot, and the tide of world opinion goes against them.

The great majority of the 150,000 to 200,000 demonstrators Thursday were peaceful, but it took just a few hundred drunken soccer hooligans to destroy everything.

Many Serbs are also asking themselves why did the embassies have so little police protection? Serbia has an excellent anti-riot police force, and it was certainly predictable that there could be attacks on the embassies of countries that support Kosovo's secession, so there are a lot of conspiracy theories circulating here.

LYDEN: As that rhetoric increases, what is the latest that the Serbian government has had to say?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's a government coalition, which in many ways mirrors the two opposing Serbias. The Democratic Party, whose leader is the recently re-elected President Boris Tadic, is very pro-Western, pro-Europe and strongly criticized the violence. But the party of the prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, is strongly nationalist.

His minister for Serbia, Slobodan Samardzic, went so far as to pin the blame for the violence on the United States because it supports Kosovo's secession. These two parties govern together in a very tense climate, and there's speculation that the government may soon fall, leading to early elections.

LYDEN: Has anything further been learned about the identity of the rioters?

POGGIOLI: Basically, they've been identified as belonging to Serbia's lost generation, people who grew up in the 1990s, the grim years of war and sanctions and, of course, of the NATO bombing of Serbia, and they may only have a vague memory of Slobodan Milosevic. They've lived in isolation. They know very little about the outside world, and they resent the West.

More than 70 percent of young Serbs have never been abroad. It's extremely difficult to get visas to travel to E.U. countries, and in any case, very few would have sufficient funds. They're poorly educated, alienated and used to violence in the soccer field and on the streets.

LYDEN: Sylvia, what about the Serbs - you mentioned about 200,000 possibly -who were demonstrating peacefully against Kosovo's independence? How do they feel about the West?

POGGIOLI: Well, there's a large number of people who, yes, oppose Kosovo's independence but who, at the same, time want to move closer to the European Union. And what unifies these two groups, the rioters, let's say, and the pro-Western group, is a sense of betrayal. And the pro-Western camp is hurting the most.

You know, after promoting Western standards of democracy, justice and rule of law, they're dismayed at how the West ignored the U.N. resolution that made Kosovo essentially a U.N. protectorate and went ahead and recognized an independent Kosovo. They consider this a violation of international law. So the general mood is very gloomy.

But this evening, I spent some time with some students who are taking a much more positive approach. They've created a group called There's No Alternative to Europe. They're organizing panels and theater performances to restore optimism and trust in the West, but it's not easy. In the last few days, they've received threats accusing them of being traitors, and some of them even have been under police protection.

LYDEN: Well, we'll keep watching it. Thank you very much.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Belgrade. Thanks again, Sylvia,

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Jacki.

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