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Reporter's Notebook: Progress in the Balkans - 2002-01-12

In the Balkans in southeastern Europe, progress towards building democracy and free markets has been uneven and hampered by ethnic divisions and years of conflict. But VOA's Barry Wood, who has been traveling in Serbia and Macedonia, has found evidence of significant progress that could bode well for the year ahead.

Fifteen months after Slobodan Milosevic surrendered power in Belgrade, commercial traffic has returned to the road corridor linking the southern Balkans with western Europe. After a decade of making the long detour around Serbia, the big trucks from Germany are again rolling down the highway between Belgrade, Nis and Skopje on their way to Greece and Turkey. In addition, the entire Danube River has been reopened to shipping as Serbian bridges brought down by NATO planes in 1999 have been cleared from the navigation channel.

A year ago, fighting between local police and ethnic Albanians threatened to engulf Serbia's southern Presevo valley. Today, the area is calm. As I traveled by bus through Buyanovac, a line of 200 worshippers walked through freshly-fallen snow from Christmas Eve services at an Orthodox church whose gold dome illuminated the night sky. To the west, on the hillsides that comprise the valley (Serbian) border with Kosovo, lights flickered from ethnic Albanian villages. An American aid worker had told me (that morning) how an ethnic Albanian dairy here was short of milk while Serb farmers had a surplus. The aid worker says he hopes to bring the two sides together this coming year.

Some changes in Serbia have gone almost unnoticed by outsiders. The long exiled Serbian crown prince has moved back to his Belgrade villa, and the former royal compound has been returned by the new reformist government. Alexander the Second's father had been forced into exile in 1941. Today, (his son) the crown prince is a Belgrade celebrity and invitations to his dinner parties are eagerly sought by the diplomatic community.

But it is here in Macedonia and adjacent Kosovo that the challenges are most formidable. Kosovo, administered by United Nations, now has an elected assembly, a first exercise in democracy by the Serbian province's Albanian majority. The international community expects the two million Kosovars to demonstrate a capacity to govern themselves and bring lawlessness under control.

As in Kosovo, Macedonia is home to a NATO peacekeeping force that is tangible evidence of continuing western commitment to regional stability. Two-thousand-one was a terrible year for Macedonia where civil war between Slavic Macedonians and minority Albanians was only narrowly averted by a fragile peace agreement and subsequent NATO intervention. But the six month insurgency has ended and the peace accord that disarmed the rebels in return for increased Albanian rights is holding.

Macedonia's two million inhabitants, one third of whom are Albanian, are being asked to achieve what been done almost nowhere else in the Balkans. In what will be an immense challenge, Macedonians are being urged to build a western-style multi-ethnic democracy where power in business and government is broadly shared by all ethnic groups. Whether Macedonians can overcome deep ethnic divisions is unknown. But all agree That goal will be very hard to achieve.