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Serbians Predict Tough Times for Nation

March 16, 2003

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) _ Jovanka Milic said she has made up her mind. First, she attended the funeral of Serbia’s slain prime minister, and now she will emigrate to the West.

``The bullets that killed Zoran Djindjic killed the last hope in Serbia,″ she said, reflecting the gloom that has settled over the troubled republic after the assassination of its most energetic and reformist leader since World War II.

Like Milic, many Serbs, especially the young and educated, feel there’s no one left to lead Serbia out of its misery. They are bracing for a bitter power struggle over Djindjic’s successor, and for more of the violence that has gripped the Balkans for over a decade.

There was hope that Djindjic _ who was instrumental in overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 _ would anchor Serbia among Europe’s democracies after wars, sanctions, economic decline and social decay left over from the former president’s ruinous rule.

``Now, there is nothing for me to do but to buy a one-way plane ticket and leave,″ said Milic, 29, an unemployed pediatrician, as she stood in a long line of sobbing mourners wanting to sign a book of condolences outside the government offices where Djindjic, 50, was slain last week.

The mourners stood in the shadows of the Yugoslav Army headquarters, bombed during 1999 NATO airstrikes that punished Milosevic for his brutal crackdown on independence-minded ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

``These ruins are the symbol of Milosevic’s rule,″ said Djordje Milutinovic, a 20-year-old medical student, pointing at the damaged concrete buildings. ``Djindjic wanted to build our country from those ashes, but Milosevic’s monsters didn’t let him.″

Authorities have accused a shadowy network of paramilitaries loyal to Milosevic in the assassination. Djindjic had made powerful enemies among supporters of the former president and mobsters who resented the government’s war on rampant organized crime.

Even before Djindjic’s killing, one in two young Serbs said they would like to emigrate because of the painfully slow speed of reforms after Milosevic’s ouster, a recent survey suggested.

Already, an estimated 200,000 people, mostly those who have had some higher education, fled Belgrade for the West during Milosevic’s 13-year reign. That brain drain _ about 10 percent of the republic’s population _ is expected to continue now that Djindjic is gone.

``The worst is that his killing could strengthen an assumption that in Serbia only authoritarian rule is possible,″ Aleksa Djilas, a prominent author and analyst, wrote in a commentary for the newspaper Danas.

Djindjic’s assassination, he said, comes at the worst possible time: ``when we started to come out of the nightmare caused by Milosevic’s erroneous rule.″

The assassination leaves a vacuum at the top. Djindjic gained real power in Serbia after orchestrating Milosevic’s ouster and extradition to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is being tried for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Milosevic’s hard-liners, as well as moderate nationalists such as former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, have already shown their ambition to take over.

Djindjic favored radical economic reforms and close ties with the West, including cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal. His former ally, Kostunica, favored a more cautious approach and bitterly opposes the tribunal.

Kostunica lost his job as Yugoslav president when the country was transformed last month into a loose union of its two remaining republics, Serbia and Montenegro. None of Djindjic’s allies has a broad following, despite promising to continue reforms initiated by Djindjic.

Zoran Zivkovic, nominated by the ruling Democratic Party on Sunday to succeed Djindjic, hardly has the charisma or political skills of the slain premier, nor the international stature of German-educated Djindjic.

He pledged to keep the country on the course of pro-democracy reforms and close ties with the West, and to find Djindjic’s assassins.

``The state of emergency will continue until we tidy up Serbia with an iron broom,″ Zivkovic said.

Many here believe Djindjic’s killing could shake the Serbs out of their lethargy and hopelessness. Djindjic was never too popular because of his radical demands for change.

``Djindjic’s views could become popular because of his martyrdom,″ Djilas said.

Vojin Dimitrijevic, a prominent law expert, agreed: ``Djindjic’s killing is a tragedy, but it may not lead into apathy. The tragedy can inspire.″

Djindjic’s funeral on Saturday, attended by about 500,000 people in Belgrade, was both a display of sorrow and defiance.

``Look at us here,″ said Zorica Jovanovic, 25. ``This crowd shows that there is no way back in Serbia. If someone wants to turn back the clock, we’ll be back on the streets.″

``Not only to defend Zoran’s prophecy,″ she added, ``but to defend our future.″

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