Later this month, Serbs head to the polls to elect a new parliament, after failing to elect a president in the last three ballots. November's presidential vote failed because turnout was below 50 percent. But, despite the power vacuum now left in Serbia, some analysts see hopeful signs of Serbia's democratic growth.

Damjan Krnjevic Miskovic of National Interest magazine says he believes Serbia-Montenegro has made great advances since Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from power three years ago. And, he says, Washington is now courting the former Yugoslavia as a strategic partner in the region.

"Washington's warm reception for Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic and Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic in late July of this year confirms further the Bush Administration's recognition that a strong prosperous Serbia is a linchpin of America's security strategy in the Balkans, as Senator Lugar has been arguing for more than a decade," said Mr. Miskovic.

But, speaking at the same panel discussion here in Washington, Janusz Bugajski from Center for Strategic and International Studies said Serbia still faces some difficult challenges that must be dealt with before it can become fully integrated with the West.

"The upcoming Serbian parliamentary elections will indicate in which direction the country is headed," he said. "Towards democratic consolidation or political regression. In the past few years, I believe Serbia has undoubtedly made significant progress toward Atlantic and European standards. But it is still held back from fully achieving its potential by such factors as its tolerance of corruption and criminality, its unwillingness to cooperate fully with The Hague tribunal and the manipulation of the nationalist card."

The "nationalist card" that Mr. Bugajski points to was apparent in Serbia's last election in November. Although the election was declared invalid because of the low turnout, an ultranationalist with close ties to Slobodan Milosevic was ahead of his closest pro-democracy rival by more than ten percent.

According to Obrad Kesic of TSM Global Consultants, the reason the pro-democracy coalition failed was partly due to a lack of consensus among its partners in the post-Milosevic period. He said the different parties of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia have little in common, and had originally united to rid the country of former President Milosevic.

"The problem is the day after he was gone, there was very little consensus as to what to do next," he said. "And you see this with any issue of significance in Serbia. Over the last three years it's hard to identify any coherent concrete policy and say that it's the policy of Serbia."

For Mr. Kesic, in the last election, Serbs voted against the status quo, not necessarily in support of the nationalist movement. "The Radical Party was able to capitalize on two things, the failure of DOS and the dissatisfaction that so many people cast their votes for Tomislav Nikolic because of dissatisfaction. And secondly, the bad decision on the part of the GSS and G-17 to break out [of] the presidential elections," he said.

Although Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute for Peace says the Radical Party in Serbia really does want to take the country backward, he is optimistic that reform-minded forces will ultimately win. But timing, he pointed out, is everything. "In these elections, it's my hope that the overwhelming majority will not only choose reform, but choose fast reform because that's really what's needed," he said.

Serbs will elect a new parliament on December 28. And, although former Yugoslav President Milosevic is now on trial for war crimes in the Hague, his name appears on the ballot at the top of his Socialist Party's list.