A protest in Belgrade of 150,000 people against the independence of Kosovo turned into a mass riot yesterday. Serbians are rallying against those who recognise the independence of Kosovo, and yesterday voiced their anger by storming the US embassy in Belgrade and vandalising others. The result: a hundred injured and one dead.
"The government’s to blame"
Commentary from our Observer in Belgrade who attended the protest, Viktor Marković:Belgrade was pretty much devastated last night. Organised groups of hooligans trashed at least ten locations almost simultaneously - The American and Croatian embassies were the main targets along with the Turkish embassy, two McDonald's restaurants, a couple of ambulances (strangely enough) and several cars, while many shops and one bank were looted. Around a hundred people were injured and one person has been found dead; burned alive in the American embassy.
But the kids are not to blame. The thing is that last night's riots were directly provoked, encouraged and fuelled by the government. The government did almost nothing to stop this obvious madness from happening. On the contrary! And in comparison to the average number of policemen we had at protests during the Milosevic regime, the streets of Belgrade are almost police-less today.
Prior to the protest all we heard from the government was words of hatred towards any country that recognized Kosovo as an independent state. The state television stopped broadcasting all Western TV shows and replaced them with Russian ones. The newspapers were full of loathing for Kosovo Albanians and "domestic traitors". So when there were minor riots on Sunday, most government officials justified them, one even said that "the embassies got what was coming to them".
Unfortunately, the western media chose to show the rioting and not the "peaceful and dignified" protest meeting in front of parliament. And the rioting is not where the real evil was coming from tonight.
The real evil tonight came from the speeches of Kostunica Vojislav [Serbian Prime Minister], Nikolic Tomislav [deputy leader of the Serbian Radical Party] and Kusturica Emir [famous Serbian film director]. The kids only did it because kids like to break stuff. And for the free Nikes..."
In front of the American embassy
Filmed and posted by Viktor Marković, 21 Feb. 08
Photos and commentary from Viktor
"The protest started at 5pm Belgrade time. People climbed up onto anything, even traffic lights."
"Shops tried to protect themselves from the vandals by displaying "Kosovo is Serbia" signs in their window-fronts."
"McDonalds tried to convince people that by destroying the shop it would have a bad effect on the Serbians who work there and and in effect 2000 Serbian people. But it didn't work. The restaurant was soon trashed."
"The US embassy in flames."
"Police forces came out later."
Photos taken and posted by Viktor Marković, 21 Feb. 08
"It reminds me of Milosevic"
Comment from Kushtrim Xhakli, our Observer in Pristina, Kosovo:Kosovo's hardly been affected by the protests. They haven't made it into the headlines; today's top story is the recognition of Kosovo by more EU countries. It seems as though Kosovo's future is more certain than Serbia's now. Watching the latest developments; the violent riots, free rail travel, closing schools and to encourage children to be a part of the protests, the euphoric speeches of leaders...It all reminds me of scenes from the times of Milosevic in 1989. It's shocking.
Speaking from the perspective of a newborn country, we are looking forward to EU integration, advanced infrastructure, innovation and investment, better public services and quality of life. Serbia on the other hand is still investing in radical protests and demonstrations, showing that they haven't learnt from past mistakes. This is a test for Serbia. How democratic are they really? What's happened to the "pro-EU, democratic Serbia" that was described by the media after the February elections? I know what's up next for Kosovo. But I can't say the same for Serbia."