As the euphoria surrounding his inauguration faded, President Vojislav Kostunica received assurances today from the United States and the European Union that help is on the way for Yugoslavia, crippled economically by 13 years of hard-line rule by Slobodan Milosevic.
In his first day in office, the new president found himself facing daunting challenges. He is expected to rebuild a shattered economy, end Yugoslavia’s international isolation, and assemble a government with as few old faces as possible while placating a pro-Milosevic wing that still wields considerable power.
Kostunica defeated Milosevic in the Sept. 24 presidential election. But Milosevic tried to deny Kostunica’s victory, sparking a national uprising that turned into a celebration Friday when Milosevic conceded defeat. Kostunica, a 56-year-old legal scholar, was sworn in Saturday night.
Today’s newspapers lauded the change in leadership, saying the country had rejoined the “ranks of democratic peoples,” while the European Union and the United States promised to lift some economic sanctions.
West Pledges Support
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the United States is ready and willing to aid in the transition to democracy in Yugoslavia.
“The Yugoslav economy is a disaster, and we have to do everything we can to help,” she said today on NBC’s Meet the Press. “We want to support [Kostunica]. We want to get assistance to him. I’ve been talking to our European partners. We will be lifting certain sanctions” imposed to punish Milosevic for aggressive behavior toward first Bosnian Muslims and then ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
However, Defense Secretary William Cohen said today from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki that any assistance from the West should help the Yugoslav people rebuild their country, but continue to weaken Milosevic’s political base.
“We should remove those economic sanctions directed toward the people, but at the same time keep in place the sanctions against Milosevic and his cronies,” he said.
The U.N. arms embargo will stay in place for now, since it can only be revoked by the Security Council.
However, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said European Union foreign ministers would begin by lifting an oil embargo and a flight ban, which has not been strictly enforced, while keeping a freeze on assets held by people linked to Milosevic and a ban on issuing them visas.
Vedrine, whose country has invited Kostunica to an EU summit in the southwestern coastal town of Biarritz, will chair the foreign ministers’ Monday meeting before heading to Belgrade to meet with Kostunica on Tuesday. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, the EU’s administrative body, wrote Kostunica today to pledge support in helping Yugoslavia “rejoin the European family,” but added “many difficulties lie ahead.”
In an interview with the German newspaper Bild, set to be published Monday, Prodi noted the European Commission had proposed in May that the EU set aside 2 billion euros from its budget over the next six years for Yugoslavia.
$500 Billion Needed
A leading Yugoslav economist, Mladjan Dinkic, who is expected to be Kostunica’s choice for central bank governor, said the country needs a quick end to economic sanctions and $500 billion in aid right away if the new government is to survive its first few months.
“If you only lift the sanctions, without donations, in the first month of the new government, it will not be enough,” said Dinkic, who is also head of the G-17 Plus think tank.
He added that members of the new government are working to make sure Milosevic and his inner circle do not plunder gold and hard currency reserves. Kostunica’s government may also try recover millions of dollars believed to be stashed in foreign accounts by Milosevic and his backers, said Dinkic. However, no decision has been made yet.
Looking to Serbia
Milosevic himself has repeatedly said he wants to remain in Yugoslavia as a political force.
Kostunica said Saturday that punishing Milosevic was not one of his top priorities. He promised to defy the West’s demands to surrender Milosevic and others indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.
Adding to Kostunic’s worries, Serbia, which accounts for 90 percent of Yugoslavia’s population, is still run by a government of Milosevic cronies including Serbian President Milan Milutinovic. Like Milosevic, Milutinovic has been indicted by the war crimes tribunal, but still controls about 100,000 Serbian police and, indirectly, much of the republic’s economy.
Kostunic has said he hopes to hold early presidential and parliamentary elections in Serbia where he so far has almost no representatives.
Albright also said Milosevic should eventually be brought to book for war crimes before there can be fully normalized relations between Yugoslavia and the United States.
“Accountability will be necessary for there to be, ultimately, a totally good, normal rule of law in democratic Yugoslavia,” she said, stopping short of saying Milosevic should be tried before the war crimes tribunal.
President Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, also spoke of accountability and said Milosevic was an indicted war criminal and “deservedly so.”
“We believe he has to be accountable,” Berger said on ABCNEWS’ This Week.
In the past 10 years, Milosevic has been blamed for starting — then losing — wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo as parts of Yugoslavia started seeking independence. Those conflicts were marked by horrific acts of violence against civilians, which prompted the West to impose sanctions and isolate Milosevic’s government in Belgrade.
In Washington, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press the first priority was to help Kostunica’s government settle in.
But as Yugoslavia draws closer to European nations, the new government will realize that until Milosevic faces the war crimes tribunal, Yugoslavia will not be reintegrated, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Critical of Russia’s Role
Albright and Berger were also critical of Russia, saying it lagged behind the United States and its European allies in recognizing Kostunica’s triumph.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who went to Belgrade to arrange a resignation deal with Kostunica and Milosevic, allegedly carried assurances that if Milosevic surrendered power there would be no pressure for a war crimes trial.
“We did not want the Russians to mediate,” Albright said, reflecting the U.S. position that no deal should be cut with Milosevic.
But “in recognizing President Kostunica, they have done the right thing,” Albright said of the Russians.
Berger was also critical of Russia’s role in the transfer of power in Belgrade.
He said the Russians threw their weight behind Kostunica “at the 11th hour” but “wish it had been at the 10th hour.”
ABCNEWS’ Lucrezia Cuen, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.