Tue, 10 Oct 2000

Kostunica: A calm rebel in a troubled state

By Sean Maguire

BELGRADE (Reuters): Untested by power, new Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica says his challenge is to make his country humdrum and conventional, an ambition heartily welcomed abroad.

The desire to live in a "normal" country was shared by a sufficient number of Yugoslavs to sweep Kostunica into office in an extraordinary, almost bloodless revolt, that appeared to have caught the 56-year-old academic by surprise.

Within hours of the storming of the Federal Parliament that forced president Slobodan Milosevic to give up power, Kostunica was greeting foreign dignitaries in a statesmanlike manner, establishing an aura of calm.

And the dark-haired football fan has continued to lower the temperature in Belgrade, taking the heat out of a revolution that will go down in history as remarkably painless.

Sick of Balkan disorder and strife, Western powers have fallen over themselves to congratulate Kostunica on his surprisingly swift ascent to the top of Yugoslav politics.

Diplomats say they have found him open and pragmatic, unaffected by the lust for power that consumed Milosevic and allowed him to wreak destruction across the former Yugoslavia.

"He obviously wants to move forward constructively. I think he will do everything according to the law and be answerable to the people. As a constitutional lawyer I don't think he is driven by huge political ambitions," one Western envoy said.

His commitment to democracy is unquestioned. During the campaign he promised fresh elections within 18 months, and even suggested he would give up power then, leading some to cast him as a transitional figure who will pass quickly from the scene.

Kostunica, who speaks English well, has made it clear he will be open to the outside world, particularly Europe.

But he is a self-declared nationalist, leading suspicious Kosovo Albanians to cast him as little different from Milosevic, a view strengthened by his inauguration comments that the province should be brought back within Belgrade's ambit.

The province is legally still part of Yugoslavia and is regarded as the cultural heart of Serbdom while being populated almost entirely by independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo newspapers regularly print a 1998 picture of Kostunica with an assault rifle taken during a visit to a Serbian village in the province at a time when Serb forces were indiscriminately attacking ethnic Albanian areas.

The Montenegrin authorities, at loggerheads with Milosevic over their desire for distance from Belgrade, are also wary of Kostunica, whose defense of Yugoslav "national dignity" as a precondition for state policy raised separatist hackles.

But envoys expect Kostunica to temper his nationalist tone, pointing out that, in a country heavily bombed by NATO forces last year, giving Milosevic the chance to portray him as a lackey of the West would have been electoral stupidity.

Nor do they expect Milosevic-style chauvinism or extremism from an expert in constitutional law, who, if he can be accused of a flaw, might be considered overly preoccupied with legal niceties.

He has described his nationalism as that of a "normal Serb", proud of his country, as would be a patriot in any other state. He has expressed irritation at outside "interference" in recent days, referring to both Russia and the United States.

But in a region racked by a decade of bloody ethnic wars he will be closely watched for how he conducts relations with Bosnia and Croatia, both part of the old Yugoslavia, and with Montenegro, where he is not popular with the current leadership.

Another key issue that will hang over Kostunica is his treatment of Serbs indicted for war crimes by the Hague Tribunal, such as Milosevic and several of his acolytes and others accused of crimes during the Croatian and Bosnian wars.

Kostunica has said he will not send Milosevic to face prosecution abroad, a popular view in Yugoslavia. He has deftly turned reporters' questions on the issue aside, saying the war criminals issue is not a priority.

"Kostunica needs support at the moment, not bullying," said one senior European politician when asked if the West would press for quick delivery of Milosevic to the Hague.

Kostunica won the presidency largely on his reputation for integrity. Never a member of the old Communist party, he refused to work or compromise with Milosevic in the past, a distinction few other opposition figures could boast.

But his sometimes chaotic inner circle suggests he is a man unused to leadership, who may struggle to hold together the 18 opposition parties who backed him and who were known in the past more for their squabbles than their success.

Keeping unity in their ranks while consolidating his grip on institutions stuffed with Milosevic loyalists not known for their commitment to democratic government will be a severe test.