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Yugoslavia: Analysis -- Serbia's Swift Revolution

Yesterday's demonstrations have brought the people of Yugoslavia the change in government they were demanding. RFE/RL Newsline's Patrick Moore takes a look at how these most recent protests succeeded where past demonstrations had failed and analyzes what lies ahead for new leader Vojislav Kostunica.

Prague, 6 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- People power has triumphed in Belgrade. Opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica has declared himself Yugoslav president before cheering crowds, and Serbia's new leaders are turning their attention to the business of governing.

Some half a million people massed in Belgrade yesterday to end the 13-year rule of Slobodan Milosevic. Tens of thousands of Serbs arrived in the capital from the provinces, where many citizens had begun to lose their fear of the regime and its police in recent days.

The protesters in Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia demanded that Milosevic recognize Kostunica's victory in elections last month (Sept 24) and step down. The Constitutional Court's decision Wednesday to annul the election provided the spark that set off the crowds' anger.

The fact that demonstrators succeeded in their aim in less than a day shows how bankrupt Milosevic's rule had become. In any event, the September ballot cost him whatever legitimacy he once had.

Milosevic has now become politically irrelevant and without any serious source of support. His exact whereabouts are unknown (as of mid-day Friday), but in this respect it no longer matters whether he has fled the country or is in hiding.

The state-run media have switched sides, as have many of the police. Munich's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper shows a photo of a riot policeman in full gear sporting an opposition anti-Milosevic "He's finished!" sticker on his shield. The largely conscript army, for its part, remains in its barracks.

There are two immediate reasons why the protest succeeded, while numerous demonstrations in the past failed.

First was the arrival of a critical mass of citizens from the provinces. They were angry at being cheated out of their vote and sought to put an end to the regime then and there. The people from outside Belgrade gave the democratic movement a broad base that went beyond the world of the capital's intellectuals and politicians.

The second reason for the success was that the army and police did not intervene. Police were present and used tear gas on more than one occasion. But they soon withdrew or joined the protesters. The police and army may have been under orders not to inflame an already tense situation. But it appears that they realized Milosevic was finished and that Kostunica would soon be their new leader.

Now that the Serbian people have apparently taken control of their country, its future is in their hands. The government's work must soon begin in earnest.

It has many tasks ahead, both in the domestic and external fields.

Its first job at home will be to preserve the unity that saw it to election victory. If the former opposition reverts to in-fighting, then it will soon prove itself unequal to its tasks. That may give a political opening to forces that are now marginalized, such as the backers of Milosevic, the Radicals' Vojislav Seselj, or the Serbian Renewal Movement's Vuk Draskovic.

The new government's second domestic priority is to carry out its election program: the "Contract with Serbia." Some tasks will prove fairly quick or easy, such as de-politicizing the media, military, police and judiciary. The real difficulty will be implementing deeper political and economic reforms. These will involve taking on solidly entrenched structures that often date from pre-Milosevic times and frequently have links to organized crime.

The third internal issue will be renegotiating the constitutional relationship between Serbia and Montenegro. Both republics now have democratic governments but the relations between them are frosty. It will take much effort and tact on both sides to reconstruct a mutually beneficial relationship. Turning to external issues, Kostunica will have to normalize relations with the former Yugoslav republics, and with Kosovo. He will be hard-pressed to keep Kosovo a part of Serbia in the face of Kosovars' determination to make the province independent.

As to relations with the former republics, the new government will need to address Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Macedonian demands for a fair division of former Yugoslavia's assets. Kostunica in particular will have to deal with suspicious leaderships in Zagreb and Sarajevo that regard him as a die-hard nationalist and remember his opposition to the 1995 Dayton peace agreement on Bosnia.

And if the new Belgrade government wants good relations with the former Yugoslav republics and with the international community, it will sooner or later have to address the question of cooperating with The Hague-based war crimes tribunal.

The international community is eager to welcome a democratic Serbia back into its ranks with open arms. The new government will need to take advantage of this abundance of good will and show quickly that Serbia has indeed entered a new era.