Slobodan Milosevic must be smiling in his coffin. Earlier this week, a Serbian mob took over a United Nations courthouse in the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica to protest Kosovo independence. In the ensuing melee a Ukrainian policeman serving with the U.N. force was killed; more than a hundred others were injured. In Belgrade, similar mobs attacked foreign embassies, setting part of the U.S. mission ablaze.
As in the Milosevic days, the Serbs were whipped into this frenzy by their leaders. Having spurned U.N. talks over Kosovo's future for years, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and other nationalists appealed to Serb feelings of persecution and aggrievement the moment the Kosovars decided on their own to declare independence. "It is clear to us that the violence was orchestrated," said the deputy U.N. administrator for Kosovo, Larry Rossin, after the Mitrovica riots.
Belgrade's intentions aren't hard to divine. Its government ministers are traveling the world to stop countries from recognizing Kosovo's independence, with a view to undoing it one day. Moscow and Beijing encourage Serbia in this fantasy. As a backup plan, it may settle for a partition of Kosovo with the mostly ethnic Serb area around Mitrovica run out of Belgrade.
European and American leaders need to face up to the political challenge posed by the Serbs and their allies in Moscow and Beijing. Since Kosovo joined the Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians and Montenegrins in casting their lot with freedom in independence, Serbia has received a free pass on the intellectual argument. It is a question of national sovereignty, the Serbs say, and even some of Kosovo's backers concede the point.
But it's not a question of national sovereignty, at least not Serbian sovereignty. Before the U.N. took over Kosovo's administration, the region was part of Yugoslavia. The U.N. Security Council resolution that set up that mission in 1999 does not mention the word "Serbia." In the meantime, what was left of Yugoslavia died and Montenegro split away.
A new Serbia was born with a new constitution adopted by referendum that claimed Kosovo as its own; the Kosovars had no vote, and in any event nine in 10 of them don't want anything to do with Serbia. Last month's move toward independence was a classic case of legitimate national self-determination, albeit closely supervised by the "international community." It went off peacefully, except for the Serb outbursts.
Outside military, diplomatic and economic support will be crucial to Kosovo's future. Serb thugs in the streets, and Serb thuggery in international diplomatic salons, have succeeded in giving certain countries pause. Brazil and India don't want to stick their necks out and recognize Kosovo lest Russia and China get angry. The Muslim world has been silent about this new, tiny, democratic Muslim state in Europe. A weakened, much less a partitioned, Kosovo would seriously derail a decade-plus effort led by the U.S. to build a stable Balkans.
Serbia did too much harm in the 1990s to get a free pass on its destructive behavior over Kosovo today. Fortunately, with every other country in its immediate vicinity opting for a future in the West, Serbia isn't strategically important. With NATO on the case -- and it will need to stay -- Serbia isn't a threat to Kosovo's sovereignty. The 16,000 NATO troops in Kosovo, as well as in a still unsettled Bosnia, are the first line of defense against Serb recidivism.
If Serbs want their country to become the Belarus of the Balkans -- an isolated appendage of Russia cut off from the West -- that's their choice. In May's parliamentary elections, they will be able to make it. Mr. Kostunica has teamed up with the Radical Party, which wants to discontinue membership talks with the EU unless Brussels acknowledges Serbia's claim to Kosovo. Serb President Boris Tadic, who barely beat the Radical's candidate in elections earlier in the year, represents the pro-Western camp.
Should the Serbs see their future in the West and not with Russia, the first step is to desist from violence. Eventually, they will have to recognize an independent Kosovo. In the meantime, Serbia's leaders don't deserve our understanding or indulgence. They deserve the world's condemnation.