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After Milosevic, Serbia Struggles to Reform

Filip Slavkovic (sp)October 5, 2005

On Wednesday, Belgrade marks the fifth anniversary of the protests that drove Slobodan Milosevic from office and ended a decade of violence. But democratic and economic reforms have made slow progress since then.

The anniversary of Milosevic's ousting attracts crowds each yearImage: AP

Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic wasn’t going to go without a fight, even when it was clear that Vojislav Kostunica, the candidate from the 18-party alliance, the Serbian Democratic Opposition, had surprisingly won the 2000 presidential election.

Opposition leader Zoran Djindjic and the OPTOR student movement then organized nationwide strikes. A mass demonstration was organized for Oct. 5 in Belgrade. Tens of thousands flooded into the capital. By the afternoon, hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters had gathered outside parliament, chanting death to Milosevic and calling for Kostunica to take power.

Slobodan Milosevic
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan MilosevicImage: AP

Things came to a head when it emerged that Milosevic (photo) had ordered the police to shoot into the crowd and the army to attack from the air -- an order refused by generals and police officers. Only in front of parliament and the state television building was there shooting and tear gas used.

Milosevic exit a watershed

Serbian journalist Dragan Bujosevic, who was there, remembers the events vividly.

"It was then I realized, woah, they really believe they could get killed today," Bujosevic said. "Part of the opposition certainly thought so."

Wahlen in Jugoslawien Kostunica
Image: AP

The events of that momentous day spiraled out of control. Without informing the liberal-left majority of the opposition alliance, the nationalist-conservative Kostunica (photo) met with Milosevic. A few hours later Milosevic conceded live on state television.

"I congratulate Mr Kostunica on his election victory and wish the citizens of Yugoslavia much success during the new presidents mandate," Milosevic said.

Yet President Kostunica soon fell out with the now reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djinjic. He steadfastly refused Djindjic’s wish to arrest Milosevic and hand him over the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

Djinjic got his way in the end but lost the support of Kostunica’s followers in parliament. He accused them of lacking the will to make a clean break with the Milosevic-era.

"On Oct. 6, 2000, I wanted to let every judge, policeman and state journalist go. It’s no secret that I didn’t have a majority. I’ve only rarely had a majority in this country," Djinjic said at the time.

The power struggle hindered reforms that the country urgently needed after a decade of human rights violations, impoverishment and distrust.

Zoran DjindjicImage: AP

Yugoslavia then became the Federation of Serbia-Montenegro and Kostunica lost his post. And the governing coalition imploded in March 2003 when alleged war criminals assassinated Djindjic (photo). A year later Kostunica was elected prime minister.

More needs to be done

Since then Kostunica has steered his country on the path to reform. His greatest success came on Monday this week, when the EU gave the green light to negotiations over a partnership with Serbia-Montenegro. Kostunica vowed to push through more reforms.

"Our laws must come into line with EU laws, the justice system needs to be strengthened and modernized, the constitution of Serbia-Montenegro needs to be adhered to and we need to cooperate with the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague," he said.

Yet observers remain skeptical that, five years on, Serbia is anywhere near having a stable democracy or a functional market economy. Many former colleagues accuse Kostunica of corruption, failing to deal with the past and suppressing political opponents.

Radovan Karadzic
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan KaradzicImage: AP

Serbia also needs to hand in all fugitives suspected of committing war crimes, most importantly Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic and his then political boss Radovan Karadzic (photo) to the Hague tribunal before the country will earn the international community's trust.

"A Balkan mindset"

Former Justice Minister Vladan Batic, one of Kostunica’s loudest critics, blames the prime minister for blocking reforms.

"Only a few have been arrested, and it was Kostunica who put the brakes on. There’s no transparency to the state. People were prepared to wait for a better standard of living, but they wanted justice," Batic said.

Last week Batic himself was arrested for allegedly releasing a criminal involved in Djindjic’s murder. The case was dropped due to lack of evidence.

Serbia-Montenegro Human Rights Minister Rasim Ljajic told Reuters in an interview recently that his country still had a long way to go.

"We have an image problem," Ljajic said. "The way to fix it is to show we can honor our commitments to the international community. We can't ask to play in the European League with a Balkan mindset, we must accept the rules of the game."