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Hurdles for new Yugoslav regime

France's foreign minister arrived Oct. 10 for talks, as Kostunica grappled with legacy of Milosevic rule.

By Scott Peterson Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 11, 2000


There is no script for the democrats of Yugoslavia who are now grappling with the legacy of 13 years of authoritarian structures left behind by ousted President Slobodan Milosevic.

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Just days after a popular uprising brought him to power, new President Vojislav Kostunica and his allies are moving faster and more lithely than expected to gain control of state institutions, the Army, and police, analysts say.

But Mr. Milosevic still lingers in Yugoslavia, and his vow to remain in politics casts a long shadow that could spell trouble. At stake is security in the Balkans, and the speed with which Serbia - after a decade of involvement in bitter ethnic wars - is welcomed back into the European fold. Kicking off an expected stream of foreign dignitaries, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine arrived in Belgrade yesterday.

"This opposition is more disciplined, organized, cohesive, and prepared than others were in Eastern Europe. They had 10 years to think these things through, and they know what they are doing," says Jim Hooper, director of Balkan policy for the International Crisis Group in Washington. "They are very smart and moving quickly. We're going to see a 100-day plan, but the course of it will be set in the first week."

After an apparent array of machinations to manipulate the Sept. 24 vote to his benefit and, when that didn't work, cancel it, Milosevic grudgingly confirmed Mr. Kostunica's victory Oct. 6. But experts say it will take time and significant effort to dismantle Milosevic's far-reaching influence at the federal level and in the technically more powerful republic of Serbia. "He hasn't accepted it, despite his public words.... He can exert a real influence on his party and could be very dangerous," Mr. Hooper says. "As long as Milosevic is there, it is a sign to other hard-liners to hang in and ride it out. They can't leave him as a legitimized political figure in Serbia. That is the worst of all possible scenarios."

Milosevic's Socialist Party already seems to be playing the spoiler by refusing to hand over key ministries, including the post of police chief. The new leadership finds that unacceptable. "The Democratic Opposition of Serbia insists on the Ministry of Police, and there will be no compromise over this," opposition leader Nebojsa Covic said yesterday, according to Reuters.

Kostunica has made clear that he will not send Milosevic - branded the "Butcher of the Balkans" in the 1990s - to The Hague war crimes tribunal. The legalistic Kostunica views the tribunal as a biased arm of American and Western policy. But the new leadership increasingly speaks about tough local justice and bringing charges in Serbia for crimes such as manipulating elections and stealing state funds.

Still, while Kostunica and his 18-party coalition take hold of the levers of power - and try to keep from squabbling among themselves for influence - there has been much to make them smile.