The end of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic came, comparatively speaking, with the proverbial whimper. There were massive protests, general strikes and sporadic outbreaks of violence. But there was no cataclysm, no gruesome show trial and execution as was the fate of former Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu. Instead, there was an extraordinary display of “people power,” a courageous and principled attempt by the people of Yugoslavia to regain control of their lives and their country. It is a triumph for democracy; now the rest of the world must help the Yugoslav people consolidate their victory and build a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future.
In the end, Mr. Milosevic miscalculated. He gambled that the Serb opposition could not unite behind a single candidate. On Sept. 24, he was proved wrong. Opponents of the government rallied behind Mr. Vojislav Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer turned politician, to defeat Mr. Milosevic. The president’s efforts to suppress the result sparked massive demonstrations that culminated in Mr. Milosevic’s acceptance of defeat Friday night. The opposition has set up a crisis committee to run the country during the transition period, and prepare Mr. Kostunica’s inauguration and Parliamentary elections.
Mr. Milosevic’s resignation gives Yugoslavia the chance to make a new beginning. Belgrade can end its international isolation and retake its place at the heart of Europe. Formerly the most advanced economy among Eastern European nations, 13 years of rule by Mr. Milosevic dismembered the country, reduced its citizens to poverty and created a kleptocracy run by a corrupt bureaucracy and organized crime.
Mr. Milosevic’s ouster could end the single most contentious foreign policy problem of the last decade. Yugoslavia’s return to the international community offers Europe the prospect of new stability. Serb nationalism, fanned by Mr. Milosevic, threatened to engulf southern Europe. A more moderate government will be able to settle border disputes with Yugoslavia’s neighbors and ease the tensions they have created. In addition, there are the difficult relations between Kosovo and Montenegro, constituent parts of what is left of Yugoslavia.
Those outcomes are possible, maybe even probable, but they are not guaranteed. Mr. Kostunica is a moderate, but he is still a Serb nationalist. The Yugoslav people may be happy to see Mr. Milosevic go, but they harbor resentment against the West, and NATO in particular. No government can afford to ignore those feelings. Moreover, Yugoslavia is a federal republic, with considerable power in the hands of state governments, beyond Mr. Kostunica’s reach. Worse, during the last decade, Yugoslavia has been run by an alliance of corrupt politicians and criminals. Breaking their grip on the economy, and keeping them from looting the state, will be a formidable challenge.
The rest of the world has a vital role to play. It must support Mr. Kostunica and encourage responsible and moderate politicians in Belgrade. Helping the battered Yugoslav economy get back on its feet is a critical first step. Per capita income is less than 10 percent of what it was a decade ago. Western leaders have said that they will end the U.N.-imposed economic sanctions that have crippled the country. EU foreign ministers meet Monday to lift the oil embargo imposed during the Kosovo war and ease most of the European Union’s remaining sanctions. Real economic assistance must then follow. EU officials have mentioned inviting Yugoslavia to join the union.
There is one more difficult issue: Mr. Milosevic’s future. There is a warrant for his arrest at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The chief prosecutor wants to put Mr. Milosevic on trial. The U.S. wants to see him tried. And Mr. Kostunica no doubt wants to see his nemesis gone. During his resignation speech, Mr. Milosevic said he wants to continue to play a role in Yugoslav politics. A return to power is even possible: The fractious opposition could split and widespread popular discontent could put him back in office, as has happened to communists in other East European governments.
Mr. Kostunica has said that he will not turn Mr. Milosevic over, however. Given the complicity of other politicians and senior figures in the Yugoslav Army, Mr. Kostunica has to be cautious. The military has pledged to support the new government, but that could change if it feels it is under assault.
A compromise is possible. Mr. Milosevic could be tried by a Yugoslav court. That would give the new government a chance to be responsible, to demand an accounting and show that it can be fair and impartial. That would mark a genuinely new beginning for the troubled country.
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