February 23, 2008 Editorial Trapped in the Past Kosovo’s declaration of independence was never going to be easy.

Still, it is alarming to see the Serbian government so unwilling to peacefully channel its citizens’ anger and disappointment. Its failure to control rampaging crowds that set fire Thursday to part of the United States Embassy compound in Belgrade — and attacked several other embassies — is a shocking and unacceptable abdication of responsibility. Russia’s willingness to fan those resentments is another sign that it is more interested in accumulating power than exercising leadership. On Friday — incredibly and dangerously — Russia’s envoy to NATO warned that Moscow might use “brute military force” if the alliance expands its peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Every effort has been made by NATO, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States to accommodate Serbian fears and sensitivities. Belgrade has never demonstrated any remorse for the carnage unleashed by former dictator Slobodan Milosevic on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority — nor any willingness to negotiate the province’s independence. When Kosovo declared its independence last week — after nearly a decade of international administration — it did so with the full support of the United States and other major states under a sensible United Nations plan that includes international supervision and protection for its ethnic Serb minority. Kosovo’s future had to be settled so the Balkans could finally move beyond such anachronistic hatred. Earlier this month, a slim majority of Serbians voted for a better future — including conciliation and a place in Europe — by re-electing President Boris Tadic, a moderate who wants to plant Serbia firmly in the West. Since then, nationalist leaders have incited passions with anti-Western rhetoric and promises never to relinquish Kosovo. That made Thursday’s incident all the more suspicious. The Serbian police — who are obligated under the Vienna Convention to protect diplomatic facilities — left the American compound unguarded, allowing protesters to force their way in and set part of it ablaze. We are also disappointed that Mr. Tadic chose to be out of the country at such a sensitive time. If he is to fulfill his own vision of a Serbia anchored in the West, he is going to have to show more courage and a firmer hand. Serbian leaders have a clear choice: stoke this xenophobia and self-pity, and further isolate themselves, or tamp down these passions and accept Europe’s offer of economic and political integration. The European Union has offered Serbia an agreement that would begin to open European markets to Serbian products and relax some travel restrictions as a first step toward membership in the union. On Friday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said negotiations would be delayed until the crisis abated. Belgrade has a lot to lose by ignoring such warnings. History has proved that Balkan resentments can trigger wider conflict. It must not happen again. Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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