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Has democracy come too late for Yugoslavia? It's a fair question these days. The region's chief troublemaker, Slobodan Milosevic, has been deposed. Elected reformers occupy Belgrade's federal- and republic-level seats of power. But a reality check is looming for Western governments that cheered Milosevic's ouster. On top of the economic chaos, Yugoslavia may be about to dissolve once and for all. And if badly managed, the situation could unleash a new wave of instability and violence that would stunt economic rebuilding, threaten NATO soldiers in Kosovo, and even strain the Euro-Atlantic alliance.
The most explosive flash point is Kosovo, Serbia's southernmost province. In 1999, NATO rescued ethnic Albanians there by halting a brutal campaign of murder and ethnic cleansing by Yugoslav armed forces. About 40,000 NATO troops, including 9,000 U.S. soldiers, remain. They are now busy trying to stem violence -- this time with Serbs the target of ethnic Albanians -- on both sides of the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia proper (though they can operate only on the Kosovo side). The U.N. is also working hard to rebuild Kosovo's shattered economy and cultivate a basic level of local administration.
The West has stood firmly against independence as a permanent solution. Many fear it would encourage ethnic Albanians in neighboring Macedonia to agitate violently for their right to join the new state. In addition, forcing Belgrade to accept Kosovo independence would severely undermine Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serb Prime Minister-elect Zoran Djindjic. Both are ready to work with the West in stabilizing the region. But they must also contend with a strong nationalist bloc within Serbia that won't stand for losing Kosovo.
FRUSTRATION MOUNTS. Kostunica has called for dialogue, but Kosovo's Albanians may have been too radicalized by abuse suffered under Milosevic to listen. According to one Western diplomat, any Kosovar politician would endanger his life if he were to support a dialogue with Belgrade now.
Most analysts see no option but the status quo, with the U.N. remaining in charge of Kosovo for at least two or three more years. In the meantime, the U.N. will try to resettle tens of thousands of Serbs who fled Kosovo after NATO moved in. The U.N.'s new chief administrator, former Danish Defense Minister Hans Haekkerup, who took over on Jan. 15, has declared that his first goal is to establish a legal framework to pave the way for Kosovo-wide elections. An elected regional assembly with certain autonomous powers, in the U.N.'s view, will be crucial to solving political and economic problems in the province. It could also give ethnic Albanians a sense of control and deflate demands for independence.
So far, it's not working. Kosovo Albanians are simply growing more frustrated. And that could boil over to the peril of peacekeeping troops and aide workers. "This is a highly volatile situation, and sooner or later [the Kosovars] will turn against NATO," says Michael Radu, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a private think tank in Philadelphia.
Such fears will likely weigh on U.S. President-elect George W. Bush, who has already stated his desire to reduce the U.S. commitment in the region. That worries Jim Hooper, director of the Washington-based Public International Law & Policy group. Hooper says European leaders have already proved their inability to solve the Balkan mess without America's help, both military and diplomatic. "If the U.S. doesn't do it, you'll go back to the same old problems over NATO's credibility. It will be a test of the alliance," he says.
MISSION: DIFFICULT. Other tensions within Yugoslavia, meanwhile, could play a crucial role. Just as the West is struggling to keep Kosovo within Yugoslavia, the country may fall apart at another seam. On Dec. 28, leaders in Montenegro, Serbia's last partner in the Yugoslav federation, pledged to secede, then seek a looser union with Serbia. If successful, their move would destroy the last semblance of pluralism in Belgrade and further encourage Kosovo's separatists.
Saving Yugoslavia will be difficult, but certainly not impossible. Under the country's constitution, Montenegro's secession would require majority support in a referendum and a two-thirds majority in the republic's parliament. Recent polls show 43% of Montenegrins would vote for independence, with 23% against. President Milo Djukanovic, the main proponent of independence, has, meanwhile, just lost his grip on the republic's parliament, where the junior partner to his Social Democratic Party quit the ruling coalition in December. Djukanovic has pledged to call new elections by March. If his party loses, which looks probable, the momentum for Montenegro independence would slacken.
Kostunica, meanwhile, has gone on the offensive, hoping to draw Djukanovic into talks over a new constitution. On Jan. 10, Kostunica published a detailed proposal that would strip down the current federal government from 14 to 5 ministries, limiting federal control to defense, foreign relations, basic economic and monetary policy, transport and communications, and customs. Montenegrins, outnumbered in population 10 to 1 by Serbs, would also get a disproportionate number of seats in the federal parliament and be guaranteed one of the two top federal positions -- President or Prime Minister.
TAKING IT TO THE PEOPLE. The first reaction from Djukanovic's party was negative, but the Montenegrin President subsequently agreed to meet with Kostunica and Djindjic on Jan. 17 to discuss the proposal. Kostunica will also likely make his case directly to the people of Montenegro. He'll need to convince them that their best prospects, especially economically, lie in sticking it out with their Serb cousins. Kostunica, after all, has just won the West's praise and promises of significant aid.
Washington is hoping to push that point home, too. According to one State Dept. official, the U.S. message is that Montenegrins should stop and think whether independence will solve any of their real problems, like high unemployment, a decrepit infrastructure, and poor public services. If the message doesn't sink in, Yugoslavia could fall into history's dustbin, and with it hopes for greater stability in the Balkans. By Christopher Condon in Budapest