Serbian Voters Bring Some Good Tidings

The following opinion piece appeared in the July 6, 2004 issue of the International Herald Tribune. Laura Silber is an OSI senior policy adviser and co-author of the book Death of Yugoslavia.

BELGRADE—Good news from Serbia is rare. Mass graves, war criminals, economic dysfunction, political assassinations, and disregard for international institutions are the usual images and themes in this Balkan land. On June 27, though, Serbia's voters sent a message to the world that they are tired of the downward spiral of their lives and that they want to be part of Europe.

A liberal politician who has not espoused anti-American, anti-European or anti-NATO propaganda and who has not tried to explain away Serbia's woes with insane conspiracy theories was elected president.

Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party defeated an ultranationalist candidate who had campaigned on a platform of denial, nationalist sloganeering, and tired calls for carving up Serbia's neighboring states.

The sophisticated and personable Tadic is determined to join Europe and has already set about preparing Serbs for the sacrifices they will have to make to attain this goal.

The United States, the EU and Serbia's neighbors must move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity Tadic's election represents and recognize the choice Serbian people have made. They need to make clear that the West wants Serbia to join its embrace and accelerate the country's entry.

The West has spent billions of dollars in military, political and economic aid in this troubled region over the past decade. A prosperous Serbia at peace with itself will more than redouble the investment the EU and the United States have made.

The United States and the European countries now should summon the will to set this geographic lynchpin right once and for all, so they can get on with more-pressing business in other corners of the world.

The United States—which played a key role in bringing down Serbia's imprisoned former strongman, Slobodan Milosevic—is eager to disengage militarily from the Balkans. With the EU, it should help Serbia resolve the outstanding issues—first the status of Kosovo, but also the dysfunctional union with Montenegro—that hinder real progress towards European integration.

The EU has ample incentive to ensure that Serbia becomes stable and prosperous. Otherwise Serbia will fall into the grips of organized criminals who traffic in drugs and people across EU frontiers.

If Serbia is to move forward, it needs to overcome its own myopia, pull itself out of its denial and make a clean break with the nationalist folly of the past 15 years.

This means jettisoning lots of dead weight. The elections changed the political constellation of Serbia. After the defeat of his candidate in the first round of elections, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica gave Tadic a lukewarm endorsement. His government, which depends on the support of Milosevic's Socialists to remain in power, now lacks a popular mandate. It is unclear how long the Kostunica government will remain in force.

Kostunica, who was celebrated in 2000 as the man who defeated Milosevic, has undermined reforms from the economy to education. He has donned the mantle of democrat to the West while catering to the ultranationalists at home.

While prime minister, Kostunica's main mission seems to have been to discredit the reformist legacy of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated in March 2003. The trial of his killers has focused on proving that Djindjic was a criminal, while women's magazines wonder whether the prime suspect is Serbia's most desirable man. The Kostunica government even expressed sympathy for the off-duty police who turned up at the trial in support of the accused.

Given Djindjic's tragic fate, Tadic knows of the risks ahead. Despite domestic opposition, Serbia will have to turn over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague some 20 indicted war criminals still at large—including, most importantly, Ratko Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb forces who is widely believed to enjoy Belgrade's protection. The failure to cooperate with The Hague has meant self-imposed isolation for Serbia.

Kosovo is another painful issue that Tadic will have to tackle. The violence against Serbs in March will make it even more challenging. It will take strong leadership from Belgrade and great support from its Western allies to start the process of resolving the province's status.

Tadic's Democrats now have the advantage. They need support to make his victory more than an isolated moment of hope.

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