During years of war and peace in the former Yugoslavia, the Serbs have earned their fair share of nasty labels. They have been called ethnic cleansers, war criminals, and ultranationalists.
Lately, the labels have changed: "A breath of fresh air," says US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about Milorad Dodik, the new prime minister of the Serbian half of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A "positive influence," says US diplomat Robert Gelbard about Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
The praise of the Serbs, coupled with a recent reproach of the Croats and Bosnian Muslims, puts a new spin on complex US diplomacy in the Balkans. It's as if the bad guys have all of a sudden taken to wearing white hats.
But critics are not so sure the Serbs - particularly Mr. Milosevic - are worthy of a new image.
Milosevic, widely blamed for bringing war to Yugoslavia, has run the country like a dictator since he rose to power in 1989. While the average Yugoslav salary is about $150 per month, the select few close to the first family drive shiny BMWs and reside in mansions in the suburbs of Belgrade.
"Milosevic does not deserve praise from the West," says Cedomir Antic, the spokesman for the opposition Democratic Party in Serbia. "We're afraid that he will use this kind of encouragement for the strengthening of his Socialist regime."
According to Mr. Antic, Milosevic has made no visible progress on the key issues that are the basis of the "outer wall" of economic sanctions against Yugoslavia, which prevent the country from receiving international loans.
Violence continues to escalate in Kosovo, the province of Serbia with a 90-percent ethnic Albanian population. Serbian police swept though ethnic Albanian villages with helicopters and armored vehicles Sunday in the wake of clashes between Serbs and guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army that killed at least 20 people on Saturday.
Serbia has also steadily failed to cooperate with the international community in turning over its suspected war criminals. And Serbia's government has not undertaken significant democratic reforms.
Yet the US last week announced incentives granting Yugoslavia enhanced diplomatic recognition, including landing rights in the US and more representation in its United Nations Observer Mission.
Most of the kind words about the Serbs come in response to the appointment in Bosnia of Mr. Dodik, a pro-Western moderate who has already appeared willing to honor the war-ending 1995 Dayton agreement and surrender some suspected war criminals to the International Tribunal at The Hague.
He is not without critics. Four senior members of Dodik's government played active roles in the Serbs' military campaign to wrest an independent state out of Bosnia. There are allegations that they are implicated in war crimes.
Still, by Balkan standards, Dodik, a wealthy businessman, has a good record. He distanced himself from the war in the early 1990s and was one of the first politicians to oppose hard-line Bosnian Serb leader and war-crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic.
"Dodik is a new face in politics," says Vladamir Goati, a political science professor at Belgrade University. "During the war he was some kind of special dissident. He has personal courage. This is rare."
Dodik, a protg of Biljana Plavsic, the US-backed president of Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb Republic), was enthusiastically received by Milosevic in February - a gesture that won Milosevic the accolades of US diplomats.
But according to Dusan Mihajlovic, president of the New Democracy Party in Serbia, Milosevic had little choice but to jump on the Dodik bandwagon or risk losing influence in Bosnia.
"Two years ago Milosevic controlled Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro," says Mr. Mihajlovic, who has close ties to both Dodik and Milosevic. "Now he is close to losing Bosnia and Montenegro."
In Montenegro, which along with Serbia makes up postwar Yugoslavia, a pro-Western Milo Djukanovic was elected president this winter. He has become a fierce critic of Belgrade's unwillingness to implement economic reforms.
A Western analyst in the Balkans described the new US take on Milosevic as a last-ditch effort to move the leader in a positive direction.
"What else can you do with this guy?" asks the analyst, who requested anonymity. "He still runs the country. We can't just pack our bags and go home. You can't get rid of him. Look at Saddam Hussein. He's stayed in power despite the toughest sanctions in the world."
With many issues still unresolved in Bosnia, the international community needs both Milosevic and Dodik to keep the peace.
US officials have said they are becoming increasingly frustrated with Bosnian Muslim and Croatian leaders, accused of inflammatory nationalism and dodging refugee agreements. Now the US may have to turn to the Serbs for help.
Wartime leader Mr. Karadzic is still at large and is still considered a hero by many Bosnian Serbs. Also, the Bosnian city of Brcko, now under United Nations control, will soon be up for grabs between the Croat-Muslim Federation and Republika Srpska.
Observers say Milosevic's and Dodik's true intentions will be clear when the topics of Karadzic and Brcko are taken up. By strengthening relations now, the international community may have more leverage when it's time to negotiate.