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Serbs Mark Somber Anniversary of Milosevic's Ouster  - 2004-10-06


Four years ago this week, a popular uprising in Serbia ended the more than a decade of rule by strong-man Slobodan Milosevic. The optimism that accompanied that revolution has largely been replaced with cynicism, as the high expectations of a better life have been slow to materialize.

A small group of students gathered on the banks of the Sava river in Belgrade to set off fireworks commemorating the October 5 revolution. But for most Serbs it was just another workday.

For some time after October 2000 there was near euphoria in Serbia.

Slobodan Milosevic was in custody and was soon turned over to the Hague war crimes tribunal for trial. A reformist government led by Zoran Djindjic was swept into office in Serbia's first democratic elections since World War II. The sanctions that crippled and isolated Serbia were lifted and the early economic reforms were hailed as among the most far-reaching in post-communist Europe.

But the reform momentum halted in the aftermath of Mr. Djindjic's assassination in March 2003. Goran Stupar, a 27-year-old computer whiz and business graduate who returned from abroad in 2001 to help build a democratic Serbia, is now disillusioned.

"I do not really see that this country is going forward," he said. "It used to be. It used to have progress when minister Djindjic was alive. He was, as I said before, a visionary. But after the assassination of Mr. Djindjic everything kind of stopped, so to speak. Because of all these constant fights within the governing coalition."

The infighting began even before Mr. Djindjic's murder in downtown Belgrade. There was a bitter falling out between the prime minister and Vojislav Kostunica, the law professor the reformers had selected to lead the successful electoral challenge to Mr. Milosevic.

Today Mr. Kostunica has Mr. Djindjic's old job. But he is regarded as a weak leader and is better known as a nationalist than as a reformer.

While Serbia is no longer isolated, it lags well behind in becoming integrated into European institutions. Its path to membership in the European Union and NATO is blocked by its refusal to hand over to the Hague tribunal army officers indicted for crimes during the Milosevic era wars.

But it is the slow pace of economic recovery that most people blame for Serbia's current malaise. Living standards are below those of 15 years ago and needed reforms on privatization and foreign investment are held up by government infighting.

Analysts say the surge of foreign investment that followed the revolution has slowed because of worries over future stability. There is concern over whether Serbia's loose federation with much smaller Montenegro will endure and what will happen in Kosovo - the predominantly Albanian populated southern district now administered by the United Nations.

Political analysts blame perceptions of unfair foreign treatment of Serbia and slow economic progress for the significant gains made by the Radical Party in recent municipal and parliamentary elections. That party's leader is in the Hague awaiting trial on war crime charges.

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