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Serb protests echo Milosevic era

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  • Serbs feel betrayed just weeks after electing a pro-West president
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Alessio Vinci
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Alessio Vinci was CNN's Belgrade bureau chief until 2001

BELGRADE, Serbia (CNN) -- Watching on television the hundreds of thousands demonstrating in front of the parliament building I couldn't help but thinking at the many demonstrations I covered in Belgrade.

First the large student demonstrations of the late 1990's challenging municipal election results that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was trying to rig. Clashes between riot police and students often broke out, and many suffered injuries as a result.

Then there were the large anti-West demonstrations when NATO began its bombing campaign in March 1999 to push Serb forces out of Kosovo. This time many Serbs -- some perhaps reluctantly -- rallied behind Milosevic who stood up to what was perceived in Serbia as an aggression against the nation.

Throughout his decade-long tenure Milosevic himself was also very good at organizing pro-government demonstrations and rallies. In the months after the NATO bombing tens of thousands were often bussed in from all over Serbia to give the impression the whole nation was behind him, when in fact it was not.

Finally, the last time hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Belgrade was October 2000. That demonstration culminated with Milosevic's overthrow after he refused to recognize his election defeat.

The large rally in Belgrade on Thursday to protest Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence very much reminded me of the nationalist gatherings organized by Milosevic's regime.

The melancholic Serb music, the firebrand speeches and the flags gave the sense of a nation at odds with the rest of the world, a victim of an incredible injustice.

It was very much a gathering aimed at showing Serb unity, but the nationalist element was very much present.

Tomislav Nikolic, the ultranationalist leader who narrowly lost a presidential election a few weeks ago was there. And so was Vojslav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, who led anti-Milosevic demonstrations in 2000 without ever being a big fan of the West. "For as long as we live, Kosovo will be in Serbia!" he told the crowd. These could have been Milosevic's words of a decade ago.

The Serbian government organized the rally to show the world Serb indignation and anger at Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence. People arrived from all over Serbia also thanks to free transport, including trains and buses.

Serb officials have been consistent in saying that they will challenge Kosovo's independence politically and diplomatically, and ruled out any use of force.

But images of the burning U.S. Embassy in Belgrade are making that effort, already pretty much a lost cause, much harder. Indeed Serbia's pro-West president Boris Tadic reacted saying that violence is putting Kosovo further away from Serbia, not closer.

Yet one cannot ignore the inadequate security that Serb officials put in place to protect sensitive sites at a time of high tension and passion. On Sunday, hours after Kosovo declared independence, Serb riot police fought pitch battles with thugs and violent demonstrators outside the U.S. compound as they tried to storm it a first time.

Where were they Thursday night? It took a good half hour for them to intervene, but the embassy grounds were already breached, and fire was raging from a couple of rooms on the first floor of the chancellery.

Serb officials said police were overstretched providing security for the large gathering in front of the parliament, but many observers predicted that there was a chance of violence, and more should have been done to prevent images of the U.S. Embassy under attack to make world headlines.

Military police, known as MUP in Serbia, did intervene and quickly restored order near the embassy, so the mob decided to vent its frustration at Western businesses, including a McDonalds and a Nike shoe, whose stores were ransacked and looted. I bet many of those who attacked the stores often eat there and wear Nike shoes.

This is not to say the whole Serb nation is revolting against Kosovo's independence. In fact many here do not condone violence and are certainly not supporting a return to the old days of violence and isolation.

But Serbs in Belgrade and elsewhere feel betrayed. Milosevic, the Balkan strongman whom they first loved and then hated, and who was very much responsible for the disintegration of this once proud nation, managed to keep Kosovo within Serbia.

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Now Milosevic is dead, and Serbia elected a new president whose stated goal is to bring this country into the European Union.

The scenes in Belgrade Thursday night, made that road just a little bit longer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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