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Serbia Makes Progress 15 Months After Milosevic Ouster - 2002-01-02

In the 15 months since a popular uprising toppled Slobodan Milosevic from 12 years of power in Belgrade, Serbia has made real progress in building a democratic political system. But critics say a lot more needs to be done.

To external appearances Serbia has become a vibrant democracy. There are lively parliamentary debates. Rival politicians debate their differences in news media freed from government interference.

The threat of arbitrary arrest is gone. The parliamentary elections held one year ago were judged by outside observers to be free and fair.

But for veteran human rights campaigner Sonja Biserko, Serbia is far from being a normal Western democracy.

While she has praised Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic for arresting Mr. Milosevic and sending him to the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, Ms. Biserko said the Serbian government and people have not yet faced up to their responsibility for the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. She is outraged that Serbia's leaders permit General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who was appointed by Mr. Milosevic, to remain as head of the Yugoslav army.

Ms. Biserko, who heads the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, advocates independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo and for Montenegro, the other republic, with Serbia, in the Yugoslav federation. Both positions have little support from most Serbs, but Ms. Biserko said both are essential to peace in the region.

"The first, main thing to be done is to allow Yugoslavia, this Yugoslavia, to dissolve. To finish the process of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This is the key to creating conditions for regional reintegration that is asked for by all international organizations and Western governments," she said.

The prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, and the president of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica, say they will accept the results of Montenegro's planned referendum on independence, which is likely to take place by the end of April.

But both men strenuously oppose independence for the province of Kosovo, which has been administered by the United Nations since 1999. Though the province is part of Serbia, the population of Kosovo is overwhelmingly ethnic-Albanian and in favor of independence. Ms. Biserko believes the Serbian government is willing to accept the loss of Kosovo, as long as the Serbian enclaves can be retained.

The Serbian government is "planning the partition of Kosovo, either by the expulsion of the Albanians - which was tried and didn't succeed - we had [NATO] intervention because of that. And now they're trying partition. And this I would say is state policy at this moment," she said.

Serbia may or may not hold early parliamentary elections in 2002. Much depends on the referendum in Montenegro. If that small mountainous republic decides to go its own way, then there won't be a Yugoslavia and President Kostunica won't have a job.

Serbia is governed by a multiparty coalition in which Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Djindjic have been allies. But the one-time friends have become political rivals with the nationalistic but soft-spoken Mr. Kostunica being the more popular with voters.

Analysts have been predicting a split in the ruling coalition for months, but it hasn't occurred. The latest view in Belgrade is that the coalition is likely to hold together, perhaps for the whole of 2002. But, say analysts, sooner or later there will be elections in which Mr. Djindjic and Mr. Kostunica are adversaries.