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A Major Setback for Serbia

March 13, 2003

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's assassination Wednesday in Belgrade undeniably damages Serbia's attempts to rise above partisan bloodshed and create a government that is representative of its factionalized ethnic groups. Djindjic had pushed hard to build democracy from the mental rubble of war in the core of the former Yugoslavia. He led the 2000 revolt that ousted Slobodan Milosevic, the former president and alleged war criminal, then handed him over for an international court trial. He acquired dangerous enemies and unsavory friends, amounting to a long list of suspects.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 launched years of war that reminded onlookers of what the term "balkanization" originally meant -- small, fragmentary provinces that hate their neighbors. In 1999, NATO planes bombed the Serbian province of Kosovo to stop the slaughter of Kosovar Albanians by Milosevic's Serb forces. The next year a pro-democracy coalition cobbled together by Djindjic ousted Milosevic.

Djindjic was eager to transform the former Yugoslavia, now reduced to Serbia and much smaller Montenegro, by establishing an independent judiciary, reforming the police and military and producing a new constitution. His actions angered many who wanted a slower pace or insisted that Serbia should fight to dominate its neighbors. Although Djindjic's multiparty coalition government presided over economic improvements, Serbia continued to suffer from corruption and ethnic quarrels. The government quickly named as chief suspects the organized crime figures whom Djindjic was attempting to suppress.

Difficulty of the kind that Serbia has faced in stitching together a working nation is even more vivid in Afghanistan, where Pushtuns still fight Tajiks and the government's writ does not run much outside Kabul, the capital. The experiences of Serbia and Afghanistan should sound cautionary notes for the aftermath of a war in Iraq. When the tanks fall silent, quarreling factions may not add up to a nation.

Serbia might still build the institutions that support democracy. The U.S. should continue to aid Serbia, for instance, with funding to train civilian security forces and simultaneously push for continued purges of alleged war criminals. Europe should encourage whoever succeeds Djindjic to keep building an economy free of the strictures of communist rule, with the promise of eventual full-fledged integration into Europe.

Serbia's steady progress had seemed tentative proof that even the most riven, brutalized state can salvage itself. Now, uncertainty looms.

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