Serbia's Move to Democracy Ricochets in Bosnia

Diplomats and observers in the Balkans have a new cause for optimism: Street protests in Serbia have boosted chances for increased democracy among Serbs in neighboring Bosnia and for achieving full unity of the war-torn country.

For five weeks, protesters in Serbia have challenged Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's annulment of local elections that his ruling party apparently lost.

The protests, and the strong international attention they have garnered, have weakened Mr. Milosevic, who has long held great sway over Serbs in Bosnia.

The situation has hopeful implications for US and international efforts to secure long-term peace in Bosnia.

"The demonstrators in Belgrade are demanding the democratization of Serbian society, and I have no doubt that this will be a positive influence for the Bosnian peace process," says Michael Steiner of the Office of the High Representative, who recently met with student demonstrators and opposition figures in Belgrade.

But not everyone is so optimistic about the prospects for the democratization of Serbia: Mr. Milosevic has been willing to go to any extreme to remain in power, including ordering violent crackdowns and inciting wars.

Regardless of what Milosevic does, however, the unrest in Belgrade and other cities is unlikely to bring any benefit to the leadership of Republika Srpska, the Serb half of Bosnia.

"The demonstrations attest to the failure of the police-state system in Serbia, which was the model for the Bosnian Serbs," says political analyst Chris Bennett of the International Crisis Group in Sarajevo. "The gripes the demonstrators have with Milosevic's regime - corruption, mismanagement of the economy, press freedom, electoral abuses - all of these things could apply just as well in Republika Srpska."

Over the past year, the Bosnian Serbs have been subjected to constant, grinding pressure from the international community to comply with their obligations under the 1995 Dayton peace deal, which ended the war in Bosnia.

The Republika Srpska leadership is opposed to the Dayton plan, a stance that has increased its economic and political isolation from the world. And their position continues to weaken.

"The Serbs have a limited amount of people and time to deal with the international community, whose constant attention is taxing their resources," says Richard Potter, deputy chief of the British mission in Sarajevo.

Srpska's nationalist leadership is already fraught with divisions, and its economy is in a shambles. The military is also believed to be extremely weak. "Their current circumstances are unsustainable," says a Western diplomat.

And the events in Belgrade offer little hope to Srpska's leaders. They loathe Milosevic, whose influence over them has waned to almost nothing. Bosnian Serb leader Bilijana Plavsic openly sided with the student protesters against him. If Milosevic stays in power, the rift will have widened, separating the Bosnian Serbs from Serbia, which is Srpska's natural long-term political, economic, and military partner.

Nor can they expect any improvement in relations with the most likely successors to Milosevic. The opposition parties in Serbia have expressed enthusiasm for the Dayton deal in part to gain international support.

Optimists hope that what's bad for the nationalist Bosnian Serb leaders will be good for Dayton. The theory is if Srpska remains isolated from Serbia, it will turn instead to Bosnia. Alternatively, if Serbia becomes more democratic, they hope it will encourage similar developments in Republika Srpska, which they say can only help the peace process.

"Any change in Belgrade will be good for Bosnia, even a change from one dictatorship to another," says Mirz Hajric, foreign policy adviser to Bosnia Presidency chairman Alija Izetbegovic. "Nothing happens in Serbia without Bosnia feeling the consequences."

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