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Reformers Concerned Over Possible Re-emergence of Serbian Nationalism - 2004-04-01

One year after the assassination of its reformist prime minister, Zoran Djinjic, Serbia has a more nationalist and less reform-minded government that relies on the party of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic for its parliamentary majority.

These are not happy times in the Serbian capital. The flowers may be in bloom but it doesn't feel like spring in Belgrade.

People here are preoccupied with grim anniversaries and equally disturbing current events. Five years ago, NATO began the 78-day bombing campaign that forced Serbia to withdraw from Kosovo. Belgrade still bears the scars of that bombing. And while there was a popular revolt in October 2000 that brought down Slobodan Milosevic, the man who headed the uprising and became prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated one year ago.

More recently, Serbs reading their newspapers and watching television have been appalled at the March 17 attacks on their countrymen in Kosovo. What is particularly frustrating for many is a sense of powerlessness and not knowing how they can help.

This week Serbs awoke to the news that the United States is suspending its economic assistance program because Belgrade has not satisfied Washington's requirement that it fully cooperate with The Hague war crimes tribunal. The news has evoked little reaction.

A young broadcaster in Novi Sad is fearful that nationalism is again on the rise in Serbia. She looks at the recently installed government of Vojislav Kostunica and finds little hope that the democratic and market based reforms she favors will be speeded up. She says she fears that forward movement has already been halted.

In Belgrade, human rights campaigner Nebojsa Tasic has similar views. Mr. Tasic believes the reform momentum ended with the assassination of Mr. Djindjic. He says he expects conservative and nationalist politicians will make further advances in the months ahead.

"If you live here you have to recognize something and admit to yourself [that] they [the nationalists] won and you're defeated," he said. "That you don't live in a country and a system you would like to live in."

Indeed, several young people I spoke to who were optimistic about Serbia three years ago have turned pessimistic. Some plan to leave the country.

But despite the somber mood, visible improvements have taken place in Belgrade. There are new buses and refurbished streetcars on the streets. There are new department stores, even though the shiny foreign products are often priced beyond the reach of ordinary Serbs. Some foreign investment has been coming into the country, and after years of isolation, Serbs are generally free to travel where they wish.

Political analysts have a ready explanation for the relative strength of the nationalists and weakness of reformers in last December's parliamentary elections.

Voters, they say, have seen too small a reward for the three years of belt tightening and hard work.

The analysts are not convinced whether the new government is going to cooperate with the international community and pursue the policies that could win Serbia eventual membership in western institutions.