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Serbian Government Faces Tough Challenges

Can Serbia's new administration repair the economic and political damage wrought by the Milosevic regime?
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Huge problems confront the newly elected Serbian government in repairing the disorder left by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.


It must seek to maintain its union with Montenegro and retain Kosovo. It also needs to revive the economy, crush organised crime and decide whether to extradite war criminals.


But for the moment, the most pressing issue is the conflict in southern Serbia on the border with Kosovo, where armed Albanians attack police and kidnap Serbian citizens almost every day.


The conflict is distracting President Kostunica and prime minister-designate Zoran Djindjic from the long-term problems they really want to tackle.


Djindjic denounced the attacks - perpetrated by Albanians calling themselves the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, UCPBM - as "yet another attempt to draw Serbia into war".


Serbia's new reformist government has so far refrained from a forceful response in the hope of impressing the world with it moderation. It has initiated a vigorous diplomatic initiative for the revision of the Kumanovo Agreement, which ended the war in Kosovo.


According to this accord, a five kilometre-wide security zone was created on the border between Serbia and Kosovo. This NATO-controlled region excludes the Yugoslav military and Kosovo Albanian militants, permitting only lightly-armed Serbian policemen. Much of the UCPBM attacks are directed at Serbians within this zone.


Last month, NATO's K-For commander, Italian general Carlo Kabidozu, said there was an increased likelihood that the Yugoslav army would be allowed to enter the security zone.


"Why would we treat the Serbs as our enemies," said Kabidozu. The general had himself suggested, following the Serbian elections of December 23, that NATO re-examine the Kumanovo Agreement.


It is evident that European partners in NATO are eager to change the accord because the security zone was created to prevent the possible invasion of Kosovo by Slobodan Milosevic's forces. They believe this zone has lost its original purpose with the change of government in Belgrade. However, the United States government continues to have reservations over the issue.


With the Serbian government holding back from dealing forcefully with UCPBM violence, the position of radical Serbs is growing stronger.


The nationalist Party of Serbian Unity, SSJ, founded by Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, who was assassinated last year, won 14 seats in the 250-seat republican parliament in the December 23 elections. Most analysts believe that tensions in Kosovo and southern Serbia helped the SSJ. Its leader Borislav Pelevic has already demanded that the constitutional session of parliament be held in Pristina.


Milosevic's Socialists and the Radicals of ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj blame the victorious DOS coalition for the southern Serbia crisis.


DOS members have also come out with radical statements. One of the coalition leaders, Momcilo Perisic, has said Kostunica need not bother to change the Kumanovo Agreement because the accord "should not have been honoured in the first place".


"The military-technical agreement represented the capitulation of a part of Yugoslav territory and it should not have been signed, " he said."Those who signed the agreement should be held responsible. A new arrangement for Kosovo to be returned to Serbia and Yugoslavia should be made with the world."


So far Kostunica and Djindjic have skillfully kept the radicals in check.


The two are keen to strengthen Serbia's international standing in the next few months after which the country should become economically stronger following the arrival of international aid.


If Kostunica and Djindjic succeed in this and manage to keep Montenegro in a union with Serbia, they hope they will be in a much better position to start negotiations on Kosovo.


That is one reason why Montenegro is a priority for the new government. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has already presented Kostunica and Djindjic with an unwelcome proposal for solving the dispute. He advocates a concept of Serbia and Montenegro as two separate independent states.


Independence provides Djukanovic with his only chance of keeping a hold on power. To go back now on his secessionist campaign would be political suicide.


Known as a regional 'favourite' of the international community during the Milosevic era, Djukanovic is seriously threatened by the fall of the former Yugoslav president.


The world's sympathies are now with Vojislav Kostunica. Djukanovic, once applauded for freeing himself from Milosevic's clutches, has not managed to create democratic institutions or to restore the economy. Instead, he created a statelet that survives on a constant influx of foreign money, which is used to fill in budgetary holes rather than for investment in the economy.


Djukanovic's independence proposal was promptly rejected by Djindjic and Kostunica. They fashioned a counter-proposal. Djukanovic rejected it in advance, accusing Kostunica of seeking power for Belgrade to govern Montenegro.


These disputes have estranged Djindjic from Djukanovic, with whom he was once very close. Instead, Djindjic has swung round on the side of Kostunica. Their position is that the departure of Montenegro would lead to the disintegration of the state and the formal independence of Kosovo. Djukanovic's answer is that "Montenegro cannot be Kosovo's hostage".


The next problem facing Djindjic's government is economic stabilisation. Most international aid is used to maintain the country's shaky power supply. That is why Belgrade has high hopes for an international donors' conference in March, which is expected to set off reconstruction of Serbia's infrastructure.


However, March is also important for other reasons. After this date, the Serbian authorities will be required to extradite Milosevic to The Hague if they want economic aid to continue.


No one among the new Serbian authorities wishes to dispatch the former president to the international tribunal. Instead, they are in a mood to try him in Serbia with the approval of the war crimes court. Although The Hague has not accepted Belgrade's proposals so far, the impression is that both sides are leaving room for compromise.


The last of the new government's major problems is the struggle against organised crime. Goran Vesic, an adviser to the federal police minister, announced that the new administration would use the Italian model for combating corruption and the mafia.


"It is most likely that the special prosecutors would have special authority to tackle organised crime, " Vesic said. " There will not be and must not be any compromise." A first step would be cleansing the judiciary of the old Milosevic lackeys.


Faced with so many priorities, it will soon become clear whether the new Serbian government wishes to dismantle Milosevic's legacy, or simply take control of it.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor


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