Kostunica struggles to stabilize Yugoslav coalition

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica is visiting New York and Washington this week.

When Serbs talk about last year's ouster of Slobodan Milosevic, they refer to it not as a revolution or even an uprising. Rather, it is called "October 5th," a term that is both ambiguous and noncommittal.

Six months after Vojislav Kostunica became president of Yugoslavia, it remains to be seen where this country is headed - whether it will continue moving forward into Europe or slip back into its old nationalist ways of conflict and economic ruin.

Mr. Kostunica, who anticipates gaining massive international aid at a donor conference next month, is visiting Washington this week. He plans to meet with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and possibly with US Secretary of State Colin Powell. It will be the first visit of a Yugoslav leader hosted by the US since the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo.

Back home, the difficulties facing Kostunica's new government are expanding daily. The struggle can be seen in the streets, where many people have in fact grown poorer. It can be heard in the backrooms of political parties, where a deep and bitter rift is developing between the very people who once joined forces to defeat Milosevic.

"Our country is like a building that was destroyed, and a mountain of rubble was left in its place," says Nebojsa Spaic, who heads the independent Media Center in Belgrade. "The problem we have is that we don't know how to clean it up. We're fighting over who gets to use the shovel."

Analysts predict it is only a matter of time before Kostunica's 18-party coalition shatters, and he is openly challenged by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Kostunica has his hands full. Montenegro is threatening to leave the Yugoslav federation. Kosovo is unstable and violent. The northern province of Vojvodina is seeking autonomy. And the question of what to do with Milosevic - send him to The Hague or try him in Serbia - remains.

As long as these questions remain, others issues are postponed. For example Kostunica has promised to form a constitutional assembly to begin rewriting Yugoslavia's laws. He cannot do that until he knows the status of Montenegro, which could take a year or two to clarify. Without a new constitution, it will be difficult to extradite accused war criminals such as Milosevic.

And what can they do about the Serbian presidency, which is now occupied by another accused war criminal, Milan Milutinovic?

Kostunica and Mr. Djindjic are unable to agree on what to do with Mr. Milutinovic.

"I'm worried that these issues will divide the government so much that the radical nationalists could rise again," says Mr. Spaic.

Equally tenuous are the state security structures, which at the moment are trying to wrestle power away from the organized criminals that helped control the country for the past decade. The new police chief, Dusan Mihailovic, has "declared war" on the Serbian crime rings. Within the police department itself, 240 officers are under investigation.

"Some of these people need to go to The Hague, some need to go to court here, and some need to be witnesses," says a police source who is close to the investigation. "Until we achieve that, the country will not be stable."

Ultimately, many of these problems will fall into the hands of Kostunica, whose nationalism will probably lead him to draw a hard line on territorial issues and anything involving Serbian sovereignty. He's unlikely, for example, to fully compromise on Montenegro's desire to have greater federal rights - or become independent. On one hand, that makes him acceptable to many Serbian voters, and helps explain his approval rating, which is as high as 70 percent.

"Kostunica's a nationalist, but he's more clever than the others," says Rade Dimic, a member of the Citizen's Alliance party, which is part of the ruling coalition. "He knows how to get what he needs from the West."

Despite his flaws, Kostunica has for the first time in recent memory given the Serbs a sense of hope, however measured it may be. "We saw what happened in the rest of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall," says Aleksandar Krsanovic, a waiter at a Belgrade cafe. "The same thing happened here, but 10 years later. It will take a long time for us to catch up."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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