NEW YORK — With Slobodan Milosevic's concession to Vojislav Kostunica, the constitutional lawyer who emerged to defeat Mr. Milosevic in Yugoslavia's presidential election on Sept. 24, Serbia has achieved the fundamental precondition for setting its democratic reform in motion: Milosevic's removal from power. Mr. Kostunica was sworn in as president on Saturday, thus beginning his term as Yugoslavia's leader, and inspiring expectations of an improved standard of living for Serbs.
The impressive show of people power in Serbia that finally dislodged Milosevic from the Yugoslav presidency is remarkable in several respects. The emotionally charged events of the past weeks took place in a peaceful manner, which is no small accomplishment. Ordinary Serbs should be immensely proud, especially considering that the revolt in Serbia had many of the ingredients potentially to finish in a Romanian-style bloodbath, which climaxed in the murders of President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena.
The fact that the Serbs managed a peaceful revolution offers hope that the immediate post-Milosevic period will be constructive - much more so than if Milosevic's ousting had been engineered through chaos and violence. Kostunica, for his part, asked his countrymen not to resort to violence in their effort to bring about political change. For this he, too, deserves great credit. This approach was in direct contrast to Milosevic's leadership, which has been, more often than not, grossly irresponsible.
While Kostunica's management of events has been highly responsible overall, his nationalist orientation makes many in the West uncomfortable. In public statements, Kostunica has made absolutely clear his rejection of The Hague-based war crimes tribunal, which he believes is an illegitimate political instrument of the West.
His well-articulated opposition to the efforts of the tribunal and its mandate to bring Milosevic and others to The Hague offers a distinct advantage to him in domestic political terms. Most Serbs oppose the activities of the Tribunal. When compared with virtually all other major opposition figures, Kostunica's outspoken defense of Serb sovereignty and vocal opposition to the NATO bombing campaign was a key to his success. It effectively immunized him from Milosevic's standard attacks, which typically characterized the opposition as traitors to Serbia and stooges of the West.
Christian Nielsen, a Balkans expert at Columbia University who is researching in Belgrade, observes: "The US and the EU must realize that Serbia will remain prickly and nationalist. Kostunica won largely because his nationalist credentials are impeccable, making him nearly unassailable from the right flank."
The West must now walk a fine line. Pushing too hard to bring indicted war criminals like Milosevic, Ratko Mladic, and Radovan Karadzic to justice risks triggering a nationalist backlash within Serbia at a time when stability is vital. Yet, too soft an approach risks undermining the credibility of the tribunal, not to mention triggering a backlash in nearby Croatia.
"Although Croatia's leadership largely escaped prosecution and sanctions for their crimes in the former Yugoslavia," Mr. Nielsen explains, "Croatia had to fulfill certain concrete criteria before it could join Western institutions such as the Council of Europe and the Partnership for Peace. If Yugoslavia is admitted to these clubs immediately, despite their continued stance against the war crimes tribunal, then nationalists in Croatia will rightly ask: 'Why do we have to pay the price if the Serbs, who committed worse crimes, are welcomed with open arms by Europe?' "
To a large extent, Serbia's greatest immediate challenge is to right its economy. Milosevic's disastrous reign represents the loss of more than a decade in this respect. Compared with other Iron Curtain countries that were in similar economic straits when the Berlin Wall fell, 13 years of Milosevic's cronyism and economic mismanagement, along with the international community's sanctions, mean that Serbia must play a much bigger game of catch-up. It is largely for this reason - to repair the economy - that Serbs got rid of Milosevic. Time will tell to what extent, if any, the Serb revolt stemmed from disillusionment with the poisonous nationalism that Milosevic stoked over the past decade.
Kostunica is assuming enormous responsibility, but we shouldn't forget that the Yugoslav presidency is a largely ceremonial post. It only had such power until now because Milosevic occupied it.
The new president's challenge is considerable. Kostunica must not only put forward a set of policies to govern Serbia, but he must also work fundamentally to restructure virtually all of the country's corrupted and weakened institutions and hold the fragile opposition coalition together. He must manage a deeply divided Serb society while reshaping Serbia's strained relationships with neighboring countries - as well as other unstable jurisdictions sharing its borders, such as Montenegro, Serbia's restive junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, and Kosovo, effectively a foreign administered quasi-protectorate, whose status is in limbo.
The sense of relief and euphoria that's swelling in Serbia - and in many Western capitals - should be tempered with the recognition that Serbia's reconstruction will take many years. Forming a genuine democratic opposition, a vibrant NGO community, and a respect for human rights will not happen overnight. Unrealistic expectations will only hinder Serbia's renewal - and that of the entire Balkan region.
Christopher Walker is a New York-based analyst specializing in European affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society