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Tuesday, 10 October, 2000, 18:40 GMT 19:40 UK
Analysis: What now for the Balkans?
Belgrade woman applauds Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica as he arrives at parliament
Kostunica has popular support but can he bring change?
By South-east Europe analyst Gabriel Partos

Since the outbreak of fighting in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, senior Western officials have tended to avoid visiting Belgrade unless they have gone there to discuss peace plans or mediate between the warring sides.

Over the years Slobodan Milosevic became increasingly identified as one of the root causes of conflict in the Balkans. Now that he has been replaced by Vojislav Kostunica there is a feeling that south-eastern Europe can look forward to a more stable future.

Nato Secretary-General George Robertson
Nato's George Robertson hopes for more Balkan stability
That is not because Mr Kostunica is less of a nationalist than his predecessor, but because, unlike President Milosevic, he is expected to refrain from stirring up ethnic tensions, manipulating Serbian minorities abroad and employing force to achieve his objectives.

President Kostunica's first act in office was to lift the economic blockade on Montenegro which Mr Milosevic had imposed on Serbia's Yugoslav partner republic to punish it for pursuing its own economic policies.

Region by region

The new president's move is a step in the direction of bolstering stability within Yugoslavia and in the wider Balkans. This has also been reflected in Mr Kostunica's remarks in recent days in which he stressed that he wants Yugoslavia to be integrated with European institutions.

As part of this process, it is expected that Yugoslavia will be invited to join the Stability Pact for south-eastern Europe which was established after the war in Kosovo to help rebuild the political and economic institutions of the region.

Although there are some encouraging signs of a change in attitudes under the new leadership in Belgrade, there are some crucial disputed issues that will take much patient negotiation to resolve, or where far-reaching compromises will have to be made:

  • Montenegro: Mr Kostunica's decision to lift the economic blockade on Montenegro is both a gesture of goodwill and the product of economic self-interest - Serbia has much to gain from a free flow of goods with Montenegro, its outlet on the Adriatic Sea. At the same time Mr Kostunica remains adamant that Montenegro will not become independent.

    For his part, Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic - whose governing coalition, and most Montenegrins, boycotted the elections - has said he does not recognise Mr Kostunica as president of Yugoslavia, but as leader of Serbia's democratic majority. Mr Kostunica may yet have to go along with Montenegro's proposal for a loosely-knit Yugoslav confederation which would formalise Montenegro's current unofficial status of semi-independence.

  • Kosovo: Leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority have professed indifference to Mr Kostunica's election victory on the grounds that they consider Kosovo to have been independent of Serbia since they proclaimed their own republic in 1990.

    In fact, many Kosovars are apprehensive about Mr Kostunica. That is not so much because he is a nationalist. Rather it is because they had felt that their best chance for independence - generally opposed by the international community - would come as a result of a prolonged period of rule by Mr Milosevic who was not considered a negotiating partner by the United Nations.

    The de facto UN protectorate in Kosovo is now likely to remain in place - but with Serbia being given a say in how the province should be run. The continuing uncertainty over Kosovo's future will also have an impact on the ethnic Albanians' "Mother Country", Albania; but there is now an opportunity to normalise relations between Tirana and Belgrade.

  • Bosnia-Hercegovina: Most Bosnian politicians are hoping that the new administration will establish diplomatic relations with Bosnia - as required under the Dayton peace accords. There is also an expectation that Belgrade's interference in Bosnia's affairs will diminish.

    However, there is also apprehension among Bosnian Muslims and Croats that with Mr Kostunica replacing the now discredited Mr Milosevic, there is an opportunity to revive plans to establish special relations between the Bosnian Serb Republic and Yugoslavia.

  • Croatia: The pro-Western administration in power in Croatia since January this year has already gone much further in co-operating with the international war crimes tribunal than Mr Kostunica is even willing to promise. Croatia is encouraging the new administration in Belgrade to extradite indicted war crimes suspects and come to terms with Serbia's recent past.

    In general, relations are expected to improve - and that would be a huge bonus for many of the thousands of Serbian refugees from Croatia who are still stuck in Serbia and may now want to return to their homes.

  • The former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia: Tensions between the majority Macedonian Slav population and the ethnic Albanian minority will continue to create instability which, in turn, might be fuelled by further ethnic hostilities in Kosovo. But for Macedonia - as for much of the rest of the Balkans - the departure of Mr Milosevic is regarded as a major contribution to increased stability in the region.

    The new regime in Belgrade holds out the hope of a more secure Balkans. That does not mean, though, that the Nato-led multinational peacekeepers are about to leave the region. On the contrary, they are expected to stay for several years, especially in Kosovo, because their presence will be much needed to keep tensions in check. Their strength (20,000 in Bosnia and more than 40,000 in Kosovo) may be gradually reduced.

    Until now Serbia has been a black hole in the newly-constructed and still somewhat shaky edifice of Balkan stability. Now there is a chance that Belgrade will contribute to regional co-operation instead of holding it back.

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