Yugoslavia reaches turning point

Political feud hampers efforts to form a new government following weekend resignations.

The extradition of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the war crimes court at The Hague last week continues to send political shockwaves through Yugoslavia.

Mainly, the extradition has forced the Yugoslav Federation - the republics of Serbia and Montenegro - to deal with longstanding problems that could significantly reshape its political landscape in coming months. Relations between the two states came close to a breaking point during the final years of Mr. Milosevic's turbulent rule, with the independence-minded leadership of Montenegro gradually taking over powers of self-government from Belgrade.

But it has also exacerbated the problem within Serbia between Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. This internal conflict could split the democratic coalition that toppled Mr. Milosevic in elections last September.

"The Milosevic extradition has uncovered many problems which the country now has to deal with, from Montenegro to sharp differences of opinion in the democratic coalition," says Braca Grubacic, publisher of Belgrade's VIP newsletter.

The Yugoslav government collapsed last week after Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Zizic and other Montenegrin ministers resigned in protest over Milosevic's extradition. The Montenegrin Socialist People's Party had been a partner in Milosevic's ruling coalition until the uprising that toppled him, then it switched sides and joined democratic reformers.

A new government must be formed, but it is not clear what kind of coalition will emerge. Many options exist, but none of them is attractive.

"As long as we continue in this awkward alliance between the pro-Yugoslav parties and the democratic reformers in Serbia, the situation in Yugoslavia will continue to be unstable," a Western diplomat says. "Serbian reformers are really fed up with the Montenegrins over this extradition business. The situation is difficult to predict."

To hold new federal elections would be almost pointless because they would be boycotted by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and other pro-independence parties, as well as by Serbia's democratic reformers. Ironically, elections would emphasize the fact that the country hardly exists.

"The extradition has brought needed attention to the Yugoslav crisis, where two republics haven't yet figured out what their relationship should be, and the international community isn't sure what Kosovo should be either," says Grubacic. "Now that Milosevic is gone, the Yugoslav government in coming months will have to begin a difficult debate about what to do with Yugoslavia."

In addition to the collapse of the Yugoslav government, the extradition has focused attention on the longstanding political feud between Mr. Djindjic and Mr. Kostunica.

A constitutional lawyer and moderate nationalist, Kostunica has been a frequent critic of The Hague, branding it a political institution biased against the Serbs. Kostunica had been furious at the April 1 arrest of Milosevic, which he also says he was not told about until afterward.

But he ultimately consented to Milosevic's extradition, if it were done legally. He backed a decree by reformers in the Yugoslav government, but it was twice defeated - first in the federal parliament by Milosevic's former allies from Montenegro, and then by the top court.

Since there was no guarantee what the final decision would be, Djindjic and others took things into their own hands and extradited Milosevic by citing a little-used article of the Serbian Constitution that allows the republic to reject federal law if it is "against the interests of Serbia."

Kostunica claims he knew nothing about the plans for what he called an "illegal and unconstitutional extradition," while Djindjic has been all too happy to take credit for Milosevic's transfer.

"For the first time in Serbia, we have a government that does not delay in making decisions," Djindjic said in Belgrade's Vecernje Novosti newspaper.

"The entire debate on extradition came down to who would take responsibility, how it would be done. In discussions, everyone had agreed to extradition in principle, but some didn't want to take responsibility for it," says Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac.

Kostunica's plans

Kostunica's party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, has now formed its own caucus in Serbia's parliament, a move that further emphasizes the party's growing independence from the democratic coalition.

"The crisis in the Democratic Opposition of Serbia is really serious this time, more serious than it's ever been, and it's impossible to predict what will happen," says Grubacic.

Kostunica's options are limited; his party doesn't have enough power to force new elections in Serbia, but he does have leverage to demand more power in Serbia's parliament, the most important government institution.

Reformers' prospects

The long-term question is how Milosevic's extradition will affect the popularity of the more pro-Western Djindjic and the nationalist Kostunica, the country's leading politicians, and what that means for the country.

Djindjic favors swifter reforms, and a more open attitude toward the West, while Kostunica created his political reputation on protecting Serbian interests.

Kostunica has easily led the popularity contest since reformers took power from Milosevic, but opinion is divided about what the future holds.

"I think Mr. Djindjic acted boldly at a critical moment, and that he will get a big bounce from this," said one of Djindjic's aids.

"Mr. Djindjic will ultimately lose popularity because of this, and it will help Mr. Kostunica. A lot depends on how soon financial aid gets here and how much it really helps the country," says Grubacic.

Material from the wire services was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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