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Serbia Still Struggles to Establish Democracy, Rule of Law - 2003-06-24

After the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 ended a decade of dictatorship in Serbia, the country is still struggling to establish the rule of law and a democratic society. While progress has been impressive, much more needs to be done.

Serbia's fragile democracy faced its greatest test last March, when reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated outside his government office. Rory O'Sullivan, the World Bank chief in Belgrade, gives the government high marks for its conduct in the aftermath of the assassination, which has been blamed on several people in the Serbian underworld.

"The country could have gone either way," he said. "It could have just run away from the problem and let dark forces take over, if you can put it that way. Or, people could have come together and really tried to deal with the problem of crime and some of the serious economic problems."

The government did come together and launched a far-reaching drive against organized crime. A state of emergency was declared and hundreds of people associated with criminal gangs have been arrested and are awaiting trial.

But there are those who say the drive against organized crime ended prematurely.

"The war against organized crime is not over in Serbia. Even some people in government are very close to organized crime," said Daniel Sunter, an investigative reporter for the VIP news service and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Belgrade.

While the state of emergency has been lifted, the government of Zoran Zivkovic, who succeeded Mr. Djindjic as prime minister, has alienated some by criticizing Serbia's independent media. It is also considering a tough media law and has publicly reprimanded some publications for stories they have done.

Daniel Sunter points out that Serbia does not have a tradition of press freedom and this explains the government's attitude toward the Serb media, which he says were doing what media are supposed to do in a free society.

"[The] media understood that they have to raise issues important for Serbian society, issues of organized crime, corruption and war crimes," he said.

Eighteen months ago former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica was Serbia's most popular politician. Today there is no Yugoslav state and Mr. Kostunica has no official voice. He was a fierce rival of Prime Minister Djindjic, but analysts doubt that Mr. Kostunica will again become a government leader. He is viewed as an indecisive leader.

Though he has been prime minister only a short time, Mr. Zivkovic appears to have the support of most Serbs and his performance is being judged positively by foreign diplomats.

But he is not given high marks for his handling of the economy. Analysts say that last year, when Prime Minister Djindjic was at the helm, Serbia was moving to reform its economy. But this year efforts to reform the economy have stalled.

According to Milko Stimac, an economist with the G-17 Institute, an economic research organization with members inside the government, only new elections can restore that momentum.

"We do need elections. Because we do need to proceed with reforms, which are stopped for six months or even a year," he said.

Despite his popularity, Prime Minister Zivkovic has been reluctant to follow through on the reforms initiated by his predecessor. Analysts attribute his hesitancy to the fact that, since he was appointed prime minister and not elected, he does not have a real mandate to initiate the necessary reforms. And new elections are not expected until, at the earliest, next year.