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Kostunica, allies struggle to restore stability, economy


When 2 million people massed in Belgrade Oct. 5 and seized control of parliament, a new era began in Yugoslavia. A day later, the country’s Constitutional Tribunal confirmed Vojislav Kostunica’s victory, leaving Slobodan Milosevic to accept defeat in a surprise state TV broadcast.

Tensions, however, are still high, and the future is uncertain.

Western governments say Milosevic must be handed over to face war crimes charges once the situation is under control. Kostunica is reluctant to do this, and the ex-president’s whereabouts are unclear.

Though Kostunica pledged to cooperate with all parties in building the country’s future, he may not be given the chance. On Oct. 9 the Democratic Opposition Party made a deal with pro-regime parties to dissolve parliament and call fresh December elections. But by mid-week there were signs the pro-regime parties were backtracking. Socialist Party parliamentarians said they wouldn’t recognize Kostunica until Democratic Opposition stopped its “rape and lawlessness.” Milosevic loyalists claimed that last week’s “Serbian revolution” was just a Western-backed coup d’etat.

In a speech, Kostunica undertook to safeguard Serbia’s “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.” But there’s resistance to that as well. In strife-torn Kosovo, ethnic Albanian leaders have warned they’ll restart last year’s conflict if the Yugoslav army attempts to return. Meanwhile, restiveness continues in the sister-republic of Montenegro. Yugoslavia’s federal constitution requires a Montenegrin premier if the president is a Serb. But there are no local candidates for the post.

Kostunica’s credibility will also depend on steps to salvage his country’s shattered sanctions-bound economy.

Conditions were already severe before NATO’s March-June 1999 bombing campaign ploughed up roads, bridges, power stations and industrial installations. Gross national production had fallen by half in the previous decade, amid a heady mix of isolation and rampant corruption. Today, with unemployment running to 50 percent, economic life is dominated by “gray zone” activities.

On Monday, European Union foreign ministers shelved their oil and investment embargo. But the country desperately needs direct help in rebuilding its infrastructure, as well as in re-establishing a stable currency.

On the positive side is the important role played by the Orthodox church, to which most of Serbia’s 10 million citizens nominally belong.

A decade ago, when Milosevic set about consolidating power, Orthodox bishops welcomed his pledges to bring “freedom and security” to the church, as well as his military backing for Serb populations in Croatia and Bosnia.

This began to change after the 1995 Dayton accord brought peace to war-torn Bosnia. And when Milosevic’s repressive policies plunged Kosovo into war two years ago, the breach became irreparable.

It reached a head in June 1999, when the church’s synod called for Milosevic’s resignation. Support for Kostunica has been the logical outcome.

Observers say last week’s peaceful uprising owed something to Serbian Orthodox leaders, who recognized Kostunica’s victory within three days of the election.

In an Oct. 6 letter, Patriarch Pavle urged Yugoslavia’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, a close Milosevic ally, to ensure that the armed forces “respect the people’s will and stand with its people.”

He followed this up with a service the same day at Belgrade’s St. Sava Church, during which he gave Kostunica his personal blessing.

Meanwhile, Pavle was consulted last weekend by the visiting Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov. Pavle briefed European Union chairman Romano Prodi on his country’s aid needs during an Oct. 11 meeting in Austria arranged by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna.

There are worries as to what this budding alliance of throne and altar portends -- not least among Catholics, who make up just 5 percent of Serbia’s population. Under Milosevic, the Catholic church suffered legal restrictions and a hostile atmosphere.

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000