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Kostunica - He's not Milosevic


WASHINGTON -- Vojislav Kostunica, the lawyer backed by the United States and Europe to take over the presidency of Yugoslavia, opposed communist dictator Tito in the 1970s and as a law professor oversaw the translation of the American Federalist Papers into Serbo-Croatian.

He has also provocatively posed in Kosovo with a rifle to assert Serbia's claim to the province, has backed indicted Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic and been quoted as excusing the 1995 massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica as an "act of self-defense" by Serbs.

In short, while the West sees Kostunica as vastly preferable to Slobodon Milosevic as Yugoslavia's leader, he is not the West's dream candidate.

Yesterday, Washington was beginning to come to terms with the prospect, nearly inconceivable only a few weeks ago, that Kostunica will assume control of the Yugoslav federation, consisting of Serbia, Montenegro and a Kosovo province under UN protection.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on Belgrade last night demanding that Milosevic step down after his apparent loss in national elections Sunday.

If Kostunica's success at the polls shocked Milosevic and his Socialist coalition, it also surprised Western diplomats, who were delving anew yesterday into the background of a figure who lives modestly with his wife and numerous cats but whose shoulder bears a big chip of Serbian pride.

"He has said that Milosevic should not be extradited. He doesn't like the United States. He doesn't like NATO. However, he's very pro-European," says James Hooper, director of the Washington office of the International Crisis Group. "There's a lot to work with, but I think there are going to be problems with his nationalism."

Acknowledging Kostunica's hostile statements toward Washington and a nationalism that would be condemned in leaders of other nations, Clinton administration officials are trying to focus attention on his promising points.

"The feeling of some people on the ground who have dealt with him has been that a large measure of what he has said in recent months was for electoral credibility," says an administration official who insisted on anonymity.

"But the feeling is that he is reasonably pragmatic, not totally hostile to American principles. The expectation is that over time there will be room to maneuver, that a constructive relationship can be worked out" with the United States.

Because NATO's bombardment of Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 killed thousands and wrecked Yugoslavia's economy, no Serb who is even vaguely pro-Washington or pro-NATO would have a chance of being elected to succeed Milosevic, say U.S. officials and independent analysts.

"He made statements about the rights of Serbia and Serb peoples during a conflict while we were on the other side of the conflict," says Ivo Daalder, a Balkans specialist with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's not surprising that he said some things we're not going to like. What matters is what he does now."

Kostunica, 56, was born in the heart of Serbia at the end of World War II as the son of a Supreme Court judge removed from power by Josip Broz Tito, the communist ruler who took power after the war. Kostunica earned a law degree at the University of Belgrade and then joined the school's faculty.

Tito fired him in 1974 for criticizing Yugoslavia's new constitution, which ostensibly extended autonomy to the country's provinces but was interpreted by Serb nationalists as putting new power in the hands of the federal government. During the 1980s he worked for Belgrade's Institute of Social Studies, a refuge for anticommunist dissidents.

When the communist regime began to disintegrate, Kostunica founded the Democratic Party, only to break away and form the Democratic Party of Serbia, after he deemed the original group insufficiently nationalistic.

Although many in the West see Kostunica's hard-line nationalism as inconsistent with his advocacy for democratic principles, many Serbs endorse him as an alternative to Milosevic's disregard for the rule of law and human rights.

"He genuinely believes in this classic Western liberalism," says Aleksa Djilas, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the son of the late Yugoslavian dissident Milovan Djilas. "I could not imagine him banning a newspaper or using a police force for anything but pursuing criminals."

By many accounts, Kostunica is almost alone among Serb nationalist leaders in being untainted by corruption or association with Milosevic. His bland personality and his belief in the rule of law kept him in the background of Yugoslav politics. Even the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia failed to push him into Milosevic's orbit, as it did other opposition leaders.

"He's a very kind of pedestrian and boring guy, very professorial," Dusko Doder, co-author of "Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant," says of Kostunica. "He has absolutely no charisma, but in this situation it is a strength because all the other opposition leaders are prima donnas. They can never get together because their egos are too large."

Kostunica wears drab suits and drives a Yugo, but he is not so colorless that some of his actions haven't given the West cause for apprehension.

He posed with a semiautomatic weapon in Kosovo in 1998 and has long championed the rights of Serb minorities in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia. While Balkans analysts find no evidence that Kostunica incited Serb aggression against its neighbors, they said his criticism of Milosevic's action began only after it was clear that Milosevic was losing support.

In 1995 Kostunica defended Serb aggression in Srebrenica as an "act of self-defense." The military attack was accompanied by the massacre of 7,000 civilians. But Daalder, at the Brookings Institution, noted that when Kostunica made the statement -- July 1995 -- the nature of the atrocity was far from apparent.

Kostunica has made statements supporting Bosian Serb leader Karadzic, the indicted war criminal, and he has mocked the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague and promised not to extradite Milosevic, who has been indicted by the court.

Among non-Serb ethnic groups in and around Yugoslavia, Kostunica's reputation is mixed.

Muslims, who have been the target of Serbian offensives in Kosovo and Bosnia, are extremely wary. This week Bosnian Muslim leaders called on the West to maintain economic sanctions against Belgrade -- even if Kostunica takes power -- unless he demonstrates radical changes in policy.

"Kostunica is a dangerous nationalist, and the change of the Yugoslav leader, by itself, does not mean much," Bosnian Muslim spokesman Mirza Hajric told Agence France-Presse.

But other evidence suggests that at least some non-Serbs in Yugoslavia prefer Kostunica to Milosevic. The Serbian town of Subotica, which has a large population of Croats and Hungarians, voted overwhelmingly for Kostunica, Djilas says.

For the United States and Europe, one Kostunica attribute might count more than anything else. He's not Milosevic.

"The stances he's taken are reasons for concern," says Kurt Bassuener, a Balkans specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "But he's infinitely better than what we have now."

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