The interesting smell of burning embassies

So a mob attacked the US, Croatian, Turkish and Bosnian embassies in Belgrade today. The US embassy — evacuated in advance — was looted and partially burned. The other embassies also suffered varying degrees of damage.

This came at the same time as a government-sponsored mass demonstration against Kosovo’s declaration of independence. (Yes, Serbia still does government sponsored mass demonstrations. It’s a bad old habit that they still haven’t shaken.) The official line is that the two events were completely unrelated, and indeed the US and Croatian embassies were a couple of kilometers away from the center of the demonstration. On the other hand, there’d already been embassy attacks earlier in the week — the Slovene embassy was broken into and looted on Monday — and the Americans, at least, had pre-emptively evacuated their embassy and asked for increased police protection.

Which they got, in the sense that police were there. By all accounts the cops formed a line around the embassy… then moved aside once stones started flying. They then stood by while the embassy was looted, fires were started inside, and the US flag pulled down and burned. Croatian embassy, much the same. Then a bit later they lobbed some tear gas and moved to clear the streets.

A couple of random notes. One, the cops did move aggressively to protect the Bulgarian and Italian embassies. Why those and not the other? Well, Bulgaria and Italy are EU members. Possibly a coincidence; I really don’t know.

The Kostunica administration has worked hard to paint the US as the main villain of the loss of Kosovo; the government’s consistent line, repeated across all Serbian media, is that it’s Washington that wants to steal Kosovo and crush Serbia. Europe doesn’t really want to, but the brutal Americans are arm-twisting the craven Europeans into going along. Yes, it’s that level of stupid. And yes, people are buying it, or at least some people… the media in Serbia are less free today than they were a few years ago, and the government has become a lot more strident about pushing the official line. (The offices of B92, the radio station that used to defy Milosevic, were attacked earlier this weekl.)

Serbian Prime MInister Kostunica was the star of the rally, but President Tadic was ostentatiously out of town (in Romania, hobnobbing with Romania’s President Basescu).

All this just happened a few hours ago, so no official diplomatic responses yet. But that faint slapping sound you may have heard in the distance? Two million Kosovar Albanians high-fiving each other.

33 thoughts on “The interesting smell of burning embassies

  1. actually there were no police around the embassy at the time of the attack, so there was nobody to move out of the way of the stones, which is just as bad.

    On another note, there were 100s of thousands of people at a peaceful protest tonight against Kosovo’s declaration of independence, but of course that only gets a line of mention everywhere, if that, thanks to the hooligans destroying the city.

  2. Doug, you almost make it sound as if these attacks were sponsored by the Serbian government.

    In fact, the vast, vast majority of demonstrators seem to have been very peaceful and the attacks were carried out by football hooligan types. If there weren’t enough police around to stop them at a time when there were several hundred thousand demonstrators elsewhere in the city isn’t surprising.

    As for the US being blamed – rightly so in my opinion. It was the US that supported Croatian ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Croatia, that supplied the Bosnian Muslims despite an arms embargo, that set up the Rambouillet talks to ensure they would justify a bombing campaign, and that has consistently supported the Kosovo Albanians in their maximalist demands for complete independence. Why are you surprised that the US is perceived as an enemy by the Serbian people and their government?

    As for the US arm twisting the Europeans, is it incidental that the most enthusiastic supporter of Kosovar independence has been the UK?

  3. The stupidity of some people like ‘Oscar et al’ is beyond belief.

    1. It is the duty and responsibility of the host government to ensure the safety of foreign embassies in their country. Full stop — no buts, no ifs!

    2. If you openly invite, pay for, encourage hundreds of thousands of people to protest in your capital and then point your finger towards the US then you must be pretty thick (i.e. stupid) not to expect some sort of “football hooligans” attacking the office that representes the US in the city. In other words, please stop the crap of saying there were a lot of police elsewhere. The sort of lies that the Serbian government is used to serving its people cannot be recycled and served to the world. Nobody will buy it and you’re only making yourself look more stupid.

    3. Clap-clap. Doug man, you’re a genious at times — most often 🙂 — because the Kosovars are clapping. Kosovars celebrated “the birth” of their new country without a single incident, not a single inter-ethnic incident. This was a massive blow to Kostunica and Tadic since their entire strategy was based on blaming the Kosovars for the violence and then the division of the country. Every single day there are continues provocations from the Serbian side for the police to react and use force. Yet in Belgrade the government cannot secure the one embassy that is likely to be targeted. Do the Kosovars want to be part of such a country: no, thanks!

    4. While the Kosovar MPs were signing the Independence Declaration, Kostunica gave a press conference where he said that force will not be used and I quote “we shall leave the violence to the ‘criminals'”. It is clear who are “siledjije”/criminals: the Serbian government-backed groups in Kosova and in Belgrade who have burned everything the Serbian government has told them to burn. No other side has used violence. The buck stays with the Serbian government.

    5. What did the Croatian government/embassy have to do with Kosova? I would like Oscar to try and explain this. Croatia has not recognised the independence of the Republic of Kosova. Oops, sorry, it must have been “football hooligans” again!

    6. Finally, the Serbian government for the last 7 or so years has been working hard blaming Milosevic for everything that took place in Kosovo during the 90s, however they are happy to follow every single policy of his to the last letter. Good Lord, even the Government backed protests are back in Belgrade. The only thing missing today was the crowd shouting:

    “Slobo mi te volimo!” “Slobo mi te volimo!”

    and then Slobo replying:

    “Volim i ja vas!”

    The rest of the story is identical, a ‘deja vu’ as far as Kosovars are concerned. At least Milosevic was able to secure the foreign embassies, one must give him credit for that.

    As Doug says, it’s a developing story so we might have a lot to say. So far, 10 out of 10 for Kostunica from the Kosovars 🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. The US gov knowledge and profound understanding of the situation is on par with their judgment on Iraq. Wasn’t Iraq compared with Germany and Japan before the invasion? Very deep indeed.
    I am sorry for the Serbian people. They pay for the mistakes of their leaders and the stupidity of the once again so called “great powers”

  5. @mosh: No, that’s not correct — there were plenty of police around the embassies. They just made only a token attempt at defending them.

    It’s leading to a lot of questioning inside Serbia. Former PM Zoran Zivkovic says the police “acted they way they did as someone told them not to react… I am sure they were told to let thugs smash all embassies on their way and then to deal with the aftermath.”

    Doug M.

  6. @Peter: yes, a body was found. Apparently it was one of the looters who got caught in the fire.

    The US Embassy staff are all accounted for — the charge d’affaires wisely had the building evacuated several days earlier.

    Doug M.

  7. Burning down the US Embassy for this particular cause and getting killed by your own fire sounds like a Political Darwin Award nomination.

  8. Apparently as a result of this violence the EBU are now considering moving the Eurovision song contest to another country.

    I know that may seem like a very minor point considering everything that’s gone on, but if this is true then Serbia could well lose what should have been a golden opportunity to present a positive image of themselves to the rest of Europe.

  9. Think about it: would Kosovo send somebody to the Eurovision song contest? In that case violence might ensure.

    So it might be really a good choice to move the contest to a safer place.

  10. @Geoff: that’s interesting about Eurovision. I’d be pretty surprised, though. Is there a cite?

    @rz: Kosovo can’t send someone to Eurovision this year — it’s too late to qualify.

    Doug M.

  11. From Reuters:

    “Croatian police have arrested 44 people who burned the Serbian flag in Zagreb’s main square after Serb protesters attacked the Croatian embassy in Belgrade during a rally against Kosovo’s independence. …
    “The police turned out in force and arrested the rioters without violence, [state news agency] Hina said. …
    “‘Prompt police reaction in Zagreb showed what we think about such incidents,’ [foreign minister Mario Dragun] said.”

    Ministerial-grade snark there.

  12. On Eurovision, there is the below.

    “Partner website, have stated that a telephone conference between senior EBU officials and reference group members will take place this morning to discuss security concerns about hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in Belgrade after the violence that has occurred in the city over the passed days.
    Of main concern is the attacks on foreign embassies by a tiny minority of hooligans yesterday evening. Attacks on foreign buildings and potential harm to foreign nationals is a major concern for the Eurovision Song Contest organisers with thousands of officials from 42 delegations and fans travelling to Belgrade for the competition in May.

    Whilst the EBU has yet to confirm that there are any discussions about the possibility of moving the contest to an alternative venue, they are watching developments very closely. Fans planning to travel to the contest are increasingly concerned about personal security issues.

    News of the crisis conference came from Misa Molk of Slovenia yesterday. Slovenia’s embassy in Belgrade was attacked by a small number of rioters. She is a member of the EBU’s Eurovision Song Contest Reference Group and claimed on television that “that EBU now decided itself in order to collect together itself to one urgent telephone conference – a crisis meeting about the imminent risk in order to entire Eurovision Song Contest 2008 now possible must be moved to another country”.

    Travel insurance is usually invalidated for anyone travelling to a country that has a government travel warning. urges fans with tickets to check their government’s travel status for Serbia to ensure they are aware of any changes in their own country’s status with regards to Serbia. will continue to monitor the situation and is in touch with EBU and key broadcasters and will bring you all the latest developments.”

  13. I’m not sure that the Serbian authorities are stupid enough to think that mobs burning the US embassy is going to work in their favour. It might play well at home, although even that looks doubtful – some of the people in Belgrade I spoke to today were quite angry at what they perceived as a “hijack” of their own (peaceful) protest. On the international stage, however – where the Serbian government really wants to press its case – they must know that this really plays against them.

    Also, I don’t think that we should ever consider governments (particularly in somewhere like Serbia) as being coherent entities. Rogue entities, plausible deniability… sigh, it looks like the setup for another conspiracy theory. As if we didn’t have enough of those already.

    Bottom line: the vast majority of the protest was entirely peaceful, although also entirely futile.

  14. @Fidel Pardussi:

    To begin with, please stop the personal insults, they, like violence, are the sign of those without arguments.

    I completely agree that it’s the duty of a host government to protect foreign embassies on its soil. Not being able to do so is a shame. Believe me, I’ve been a Swedish diplomat abroad.

    As for the violence. You seem to seem to be the kind of person who sees conspiracies everywhere. Basically, when you have very large numbers of people around, the police have a very tough job. I’m thinking of the demos and violence we in Gothenburg at the Euro top meeting during Sweden’s last presidency. Basically, the police have very little ability to stop huge masses of people.

    As for the Serbian government pointing the finger at the US – that seems quite natural as I explained in my first post. The US has clearly set itself up as the enemy of Serbia (or, rather, it will only be friendly with Serbia if it bends to Washington’s demands).

    Finally, the reason the Kosovo Albanians managed not to riot was that they are getting everything they want. However, remember the March 2006 riots when they apparently felt they weren’t getting them fast enough. But of course, that violence was used to justify speeding up independence based on the argument that if the Albanians didn’t get exactly what they wanted it would lead to violence. And remember, that violence was very much orchestrated (even prepared) by the Kosovar Albanians authorities.

  15. Oscar,

    How can you be so sure the violence in Belgrade wasn’t orchestrated by the Serbian government? The government organized the rally, knew passions were high, and somehow wasn’t able to contain the protesters with riot police for several hours? Are Serbian riot police normally such shrinking violets? Somehow I doubt it. How precisely did they protect the Bulgarian and Italian embassies but not the US one?

    No, the Serbian authorities are at least complicit in this through negligence. Not being able to protect and embassy from mass assault and burning is either a sign of gross incompetence or collusion.

    Besides, if Serbian authorities can’t stop a few hundred hooligans, how are they going to protect the Kosovar Albanians if they ever regain Kosovo?

  16. @ Oscar:

    It was always clear that the US Embassy would be a target. That’s why the Americans evacuated it! And the Americans had specifically asked the Serbian government for protection.

    The attacks weren’t made by “huge masses of people”, BTW. Go check out the videos at the link in the last post. We’re talking about just two or three hundred people — but very well organized.

    I’m not prone to conspiracy theories either, but I don’t think these attacks were spontaneous. And while I don’t think the Serbian government planned them, I do think they had little interest in stopping them.

    Doug M.

  17. My estimate is that we are talking about around two thousand vandals, not few hundred. Add flamable rhetorics from politicians about EU and the West that started several weeks earlier, and on the same day fueling the vandals with more such speeches, add booze, take away the police and you get what you get.

  18. “…the brutal Americans are arm-twisting the craven Europeans into going along. Yes, it’s that level of stupid.”
    Please explain, WHY is it stupid??

  19. Please explain, WHY is it stupid?

    Because the assumption is that the USA has a monopoly on free will. Whatever one thinks of the ’99 NATO campaign against Serbia,* Oskar is totally incorrect to say this was something Washington crammed down the throats of the other NATO members. Despite being a former Swedish diplomat, perhaps he has forgotten all about Karl Bildt,** whose acknowledgment that the special mission to the Former Yugoslavia had failed to resolve the Kosovar status led directly to the air campaign.

    Philippe, the reason it’s stupid is that often countries have told Washington to go screw itself, with no consequences. In 1993 the Philippines kicked out the US bases there; the RP is an LDC and a former colony of the USA, so if they can do that surely the government of Germany could have refused to proactively support the campaign against Serbia. It’s not as though there was a consensus in Washington anyway.
    *FWIW, I believe the Rambouillet Accords were managed badly and the actual bombing of Serbia was probably unnecessary.

    **KB: “Kosovo will never be part of Serbia as many Serbs think.” (27 Jan 2000)

  20. @Oscar:

    1. Regardless of the number of excuses one can come up with, there is simply no possible justification for not providing the highest level of security for the foreign embassies in a capital city. In particular because the same embassies was attacked a few days earlier, so one can not say that it was out of the blue.

    I would dare suggest something more unusual. If the Serbian security forces were not able to secure the American embassy they could have asked help from the American marines who I can asure you would have been more than capable of dealing with the “football hooligans.”

    The bottom line is this: the Serbian government failed miserably in its duties and responsibilities. Kosovar Albanians can legitimately ask: if the Serbian government is not capable of providing safety for a few foriegn missions in its capital then what possible guarantees can there be that a new Milosevic/Seselj will not come to power in 20 years time, cause havoc in Belgrade and revoke whatever autonomy the Serbian delegration was offering to the Kosovars.

    2. France has historically been an ally of Serbia. In Belgrade there is a huge monument to the French-Serbian friendship where one can read the following words: “We [Serbia] love France as much as she [France] loves us.” France recognised the independence of the Republic of Kosova within 24 hours of its declaration, even before the United Kingdom whom you described as “the most enthusiastic supporter of Kosovar independence”. The conspiracy theory that somehow the United States forced France to recognise the independence of Kosova is simply laughable. Doug is absolutely right when he says “it’s that level of stupid!”

    3. Finally Oscar, if you think Kosovar Albanians got everything they wanted then you must be living in the dark side of the moon. I sincerely apologise if I have offended you, however if the arguments you used are stupid then one must describe them and call them stupid.

  21. @Fidel Pardussi:
    Protests organised by the government: The alternative was having them organised by the Radicals. The last time Belgrade’s political elite allowed some rogue politicians to monopolize the discontent about Kosovo they were stuck with Milosevic for a decade.

    Croatia: there are enough exiles from Croatia in Serbia who wouldn’t miss a change for payback.

    France: the foreign minister of France is Kouchner. He was also the first foreign overlord of Kosovo after 1999 and in that function he laid the foundations for Kosovo’s independence. So it would be hard to expect him to behave otherwise.

  22. Wim Roffel,

    Perhaps a better way of putting your first point is that Belgrade’s political elite stuck Serbia and _the world_ with Milosevic for about a decade. It’s always like this with Serb defenders. Serbs are the only people who count – it’s all about them.

  23. @Fidel Pardussi:
    Regarding your point 1. While I agree that it is important to protect foreign embassies in a capital city, I think it is quite understandable that the Serbian Police failed. I do not think that you could find many police forces in the World which would protect an empty building against a mob of their countrymen.

  24. rz,

    You’re joking, right? You remember the 90s – Milosevic was quite happy to use the police against his own people when the situation demanded it. You’ll also note upthread that the Croatian government managed to shut down protests against Serbia in Zagreb.

  25. @Hektor: You are right, clearly an authoritarian Gouvernment has no problems using police against its own people and effective crowd control is not impossible in democratic nations as well.

    Nonetheless we should not overinterpret the burning of an empty building.

  26. “The bottom line is this: the Serbian government failed miserably in its duties and responsibilities”.
    And the “righteous” and “moral” west failed Serbia even more. Stop whining, a building can be repaired, loss of territory not. Whether or not the police provided adequate protection is as important as the issue of eurovision that has been discussed here to death. You’re failing to comprehend this is a precedent.

  27. And the “righteous” and “moral” west failed Serbia even more. Stop whining, a building can be repaired, loss of territory not. Whether or not the police provided adequate protection is as important as the issue of eurovision that has been discussed here to death. You’re failing to comprehend this is a precedent.

    It’s a precedent in the same way that Bangladesh is a precedent. (You remember, right, that it became independent in 1971 after an Indian invasion–conquest, really–of half of Pakistan? Kissinger was unhappy, as was China.)

  28. A report on CNN had an Embassy spokeswomen state…

    1. the embassy building was not evacuated but security personnel remained inside

    2. only the outer consular offices were penetrated, the restricted area was not breached

    No big surprise, I suppose, but our political darwin award winner might not have been as straight forward as initially guessed.


  29. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Serbia: Anglophone Bloggers on Belgrade Rally, Riots, Kosovo

  30. The funny thing about precedents is that they only have any force if people take them seriously, and it seems to me that nobody with any substantial power – including Russia – has an interest in taking this as a precedent.

  31. When television showed the burning American Embassy in Belgrade and crawling APCs (carrying Serbian policemen who had no desire to disperse Serbs with Molotov’s cocktails), I wondered how soon will the Americans recall international law and the Vienna Convention, which safeguards the immunity of diplomats and embassies? They were very quick.

    But an appeal by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns to the Serbs to respect international law sounded somewhat ridiculous. What is he talking about? He and his colleagues violated it themselves last Monday by recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

    t is strange to hear words of indignation when the situation developed exactly the way he wanted it to. Okay, let’s agree that Kosovo is a unique case. The burning of the embassy is a unique reply to Kosovo’s unique independence. There is no need to draw any parallels or get worried. This exception will not spread to other parts of the world – other embassies cannot be burned, and this case is truly unique.

    Let’s repeat this idea once again. Having taken part in the annexation of part of a sovereign state, the United States is angry that someone wanted to occupy or even burn down part of its own territory – the embassy. The Department of State has justifiably appealed to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. But what about the UN Charter, which guarantees territorial integrity of sovereign states? Having recognized Kosovo’s independence, Washington has openly violated Serbia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. So, why is it angry at a Serbian student who did a similar thing to the U.S. Embassy? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

    It was unpleasant and humiliating for the Americans to watch on TV how Serbs were setting fire to their stars and stripes, and raising a red, blue and white tricolor instead. But few of them saw how Orthodox churches were burning in Kosovo, cupolas with crosses detonated, and clergymen exposed to derision. CNN does not often remind its audience of Albanian atrocities.

    It was interesting to watch journalists changing the tune in their coverage of events in Belgrade. First, they mentioned a thousands-strong crowd that somehow turned into a few nationalists, although it was the same crowd. The Americans hate to admit that they were wrong – nobody does, for that matter. But few have taken so many undemocratic and illegal actions in world policy as they have. In the U.S., those guilty of such actions may face life imprisonment, if not a lethal injection, electrocution or gas chamber (how can democracy be preached by a country where 35 states allow capital punishment by such revolting methods?). Erosion of international law started with Serbia – the bombing of Belgrade in 1999. Iraq followed.

    In terms of criminal law, these global actions qualify as robbery and murder. In Arkansas and Texas, these crimes are punishable by death penalty. These are home states of the last two presidents that started wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq in violation of international law. But at home, U.S. presidents do not behave like this – they are decent gentlemen playing the sax and riding a bike. But once they go outside, everyone had better scatter.

    The last two presidents liked to talk about the U.S. mission before the start of a war: “The United States is called upon to guarantee…”. Depending on the situation, they would continue with such phrases as “Kosovo’s freedom,” “peace and prosperity,” or “democracy all over the world.” None of them has specified who imbued the United States with this mission and what rights they had for that.

    But these are details that ordinary Americans should not go into until someone in their family is killed in action. For the time being, Americans are not dying in Kosovo like they do in Iraq; and for this reason they don’t ask who has urged America to help the Kosovars and whether the Kosovars had the right to do so.

    Receiving reports from Belgrade, U.S. diplomat Burns appealed for help to the Serbian authorities but they could do nothing. They failed to protect the territorial integrity of both their country and the U.S. Embassy.

    But the Serbian government is not guilty of unrest in Belgrade. It has lost legitimacy, having failed to preserve its territory. In this situation, it is disgraceful to scatter indignant compatriots, but they had to for fear of being brought to The Hague. This is not a good prospect for President Boris Tadic, who talked about European prospects for Serbia, or for Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, a graduate of Cambridge and Harvard. They are not ready for any responsibility.

    Responsibility for the humiliated stars and stripes rests with American diplomats and officials – Burns, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Holbrooke, Zalmay Khalilzad, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Madeleine Albright – all those who have created this unique case and have not yet realized how unique it really is.

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