Serbia's steps toward democracy-building

Tomorrow, Serbians go to the polls to elect a national parliament and prime minister.

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Tomorrow, Serbia's voters go to the polls to elect their national parliament.

President Vojislav Kostunica's party, the Democratic Opposition Party of Serbia (DOS), is expected to get 70 percent of the vote. Most here see that as the seal on the democratic victory that began in October, when a massive uprising toppled former President Slobodan Milosevic and installed the moderate nationalist Kostunica.

But many also say the election will mark the end of Kostunica's political honeymoon, and the work of building a lasting democracy will begin in earnest.

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Experts say Kostunica faces two immediate threats to his democracy-building: one external and one internal. Albanian guerrillas in southern Serbia threaten to undermine the international peacekeeping effort, while internal rivalries pose a challenge to Kostunica's leadership.

The most dramatic problem is the presence of well-armed ethnic-Albanian guerrillas who want to secede from Serbia inside the three-mile wide security zone that separates Kosovo from Serbia. Last month the guerrillas launched a mini-offensive, killing four Serb policemen. And they're standing their ground.

The UN Security Council on Tuesday called on the guerrillas to withdraw from the buffer zone. But officials in Belgrade say the guerrillas are preparing to broaden their control in the security zone and have no intention of ceding control to Yugoslavia.

Kostunica's strategy is to draw a firm military line around the security zone, while investing in the region's infrastructure to alleviate the bitter poverty that has exacerbated ethnic tensions.

It's too early to tell if it will work, but the crisis has highlighted NATO's new cooperative attitude toward Yugoslavia's government and its distancing from Albanian separatism. The shifting alliances created by the Kostunica presidency contain new dangers for the region, analysts say.

"Ethnic Albanians have driven the West into military cooperation with Belgrade on the latter's terms," says Jim Hooper, a Balkan expert with the International Crisis Group. "Kosovo will destabilize if the West reverts to its policy of the early 1990s and avoids tough decisions because of the West's relationship with Belgrade."

While dealing with a significant guerrilla movement on the border, the new government will have to bring an elaborate criminal network under control in trying to reform the police.

Years of sanctions and regional wars helped create a network of powerful criminals who threaten the new government. "Serbia must avoid the Russia scenario, where criminals practically ran the new democracy," says Marko Nicovic, formerly a high-ranking Belgrade police official before he was ousted by Milosevic forces.

Mr. Markovic and others say the nation's police force, long used to coddling the former regime's criminals, must be thoroughly revamped in order to create a stable business environment. But he says he's "skeptical that the democratic coalition has the political will to undertake the necessary police reform."

Part of the reason is there are deep political divisions within Kostunica's coalition, comprised of 18 parties with starkly differing political ideologies.

The two leading rivals within the coalition are Kostunica and Zoran Djindjic, who is expected to become the next prime minister. Kostunica is likely to emerge the more popular leader of a moderate nationalist wing, while Mr. Djindjic will lead a more pro-Western democratic wing.

The United States and some European countries would prefer to deal with Djindjic, who is less popular but more pragmatic than Kostunica. "The West sees a better partner in Djindjic who is more ready to strike a deal and less nationalistic than Kostunica," says Mihailo Rabrenovic, an adviser in the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and publisher of an English-language magazine.

Kostunica, a frequent critic of the US, will be a tougher negotiating partner in solving regional problems; the status of Kosovo, Montenegrin separatism, and residual legal and economic issues stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Kostunica has said his foreign policy would be "pro-European rather than pro-American," and criticized unnamed lobby groups who work in the US against Yugoslavia's interests. He strongly objects to Western countries and The Hague war crimes tribunal dictating justice in the Balkans.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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