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U.S. Muscle Can Push Serb Reform

April 08, 2001|James C. O'Brien

WASHINGTON — The dramatic arrest of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic last weekend and the Bush administration's decision to continue financial aid to Serbia close one chapter in recent Balkans history. The crucial battle, however, is just beginning, and the United States has a critical role to play.

The democratic coalition that ousted Milosevic now governs in Belgrade. Its problem is time. Serbia needs reform desperately. Without it, there will be few, if any, effective governmental institutions. Serbia's economy, which could power the entire region, will be corrupted and slowed by a crew of Milosevic cronies and opportunists who have money and title to Serbia's resources.

Serbia's reformers know they need to force and win a quick battle for reform while they have the political upper hand. If they do not, reform will become mired in growing popular disillusionment and a worsening economic situation.

The reformers are held together by popular expectations of quick reform, but their unity is fraying. Real disagreements over the pace of reform are made worse by long-standing personality differences. For example, Yugoslav President Voijslav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the men most responsible for the coalition's coming to power, split more than a decade ago while in opposition; today, they disagree openly on how fast to reform the country.

Opportunists are playing on the coalition's divisions. Democratic political parties are reported to have many new members, some of whom were associated with Milosevic's inside circles. Any of the challenges facing Belgrade--ethnic violence, economic collapse, the independence of Montenegro--could blossom into political crises and prevent reform.

If the democratic coalition cannot agree on a program, decisions about reform will depend on the swing votes of a motley assortment, including chauvinists of the kind who turned Serbia into a pariah in the 1990s and opportunists whose money connections were formed during the Milosevic regime.

Unfortunately, Serbian reformers probably lack the muscle to force the quick fight they need. Their coalition is tired and wary of the hard choices ahead. Some may believe that since U.S. aid is now assured, a pause is in order. A few others may oppose necessary reforms.

This is where the United States has a role to play. Washington can amplify the voices of those in Serbia who want reform sooner; it should know from experience that reform later often means reform never.

Serbian leaders recognize, however much some of them may dislike it, that U.S. approval is critical to their success. They will listen if the Bush administration, with support from our European partners, defines international expectations and provides clear incentives for meeting them.

The first requirement is for Washington, with backing from international lenders and Europe, to support economic reform. The administration should make it clear that it expects continued exposure, prosecution and removal from office of those connected to Milosevic (so that they cannot burrow in under the new coalition), and measurable progress in controlling government expenditures. Milosevic created a giant patronage scheme by obscuring how the government got and spent its money. No reform government should be tempted to try to do the same thing again.

Second, Washington should continue its strong stance on the war-crimes tribunal, with a twist. Serb leaders are united in wanting Milosevic tried domestically for crimes against Serbs, including corruption, abuse of office and maybe politically motivated violence. Since this helps reformers build the political support they need for reform, the U.S. should be supportive.

But Belgrade's leaders also need to respect the tribunal's decision on when and where Milosevic will be tried for his alleged international crimes. At issue is whether Yugoslavia's Serbs are ready to take their place in today's Europe.

Leaders willing to transfer Milosevic want to press ahead quickly so that Yugoslavia can become a normal, European state. They know this status would bring with it the accountability and strict rule of law they desire. They also recognize that a central duty of countries in today's Europe is to comply with international norms on crucial aspects of state practice. For Serbia's leaders, that means transferring Milosevic to The Hague.

Leaders who oppose Milosevic's transfer appeal to a belief that Serbia should solve its own problems in its own way. This Serbian exceptionalism, however, risks disrupting the rest of the region, which fears Serb nationalism, and could lead to a Serbian separatism similar to what fueled the horrible wars of the last decade.

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