Why Belgrade exploded

The U.S. Embassy wasn’t a casualty of typical anti-Americanism.

Last week, Americans were saddened but doubtfully shocked to see throngs of angry protesters storming the gates of one of our nation’s embassies and starting it on fire. The first thought into many minds was probably “more anti-Americanism, thanks a lot, Bush.” But that reaction, however often it has been true in the past eight years, was not. While the burning of an embassy is a strange thing to be proud of, the reason behind it – the recognition of Kosovo’s right to self-rule – highlights the longstanding American support of the “rights and liberties of small nations” as President Woodrow Wilson put it, and is a reminder of the force for good our country can be in the world.

After the United States and its NATO allies intervened during the horrific genocidal campaigns of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo against ethnic Albanians, the country was put under international protection. Serbs view Kosovo as the birthplace of their culture and object furiously to the international presence. But 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people are ethnic Albanians, not Serbs, and Serbia has no right to rule over them without their consent, as had been the case. The ethnic cleansing of the 1990s forfeited whatever claims to sovereignty Serbia could have made, and now independence is the only option.

Trouble in the Balkans was a tragic refrain during the 20th century. An assassin’s bullet killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and sparked World War I in 1914. The century ended no better. The breakup of Yugoslavia and its disparate groups including the Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and Albanians which were held together by a dictator, Josep Broz Tito, descended into chaos after his death. Leaders are sometimes able to hold countries made up of rival, hostile ethnic factions together, either through their personal charisma or with an iron fist. When they are gone, the natural ethnic divisions of a region are often too great to suppress.

Our country’s record on recognizing sovereignty among peoples has not always been perfect, but advocating for Kosovo’s independence is proving a force for justice, and that, too, can earn animosity.