Belgrade again

December 31, 2003

WE'RE GOING to be hearing a lot more from the Balkans in 2004, and the news won't be good. Throughout the old Yugoslavia, voters are tiring of liberal reformers and returning seemingly discredited nationalists to power. It happened in Bosnia this fall, then in Croatia, and, on Sunday, in Serbia itself -- the Ground Zero of trouble in Southeastern Europe.

The party that made the best showing in Serbia's parliamentary elections was one led by the gruesome Vojislav Seselj, currently residing in a prison cell in The Hague, where he is a war crimes defendant. One of his neighbors in detention, former President Slobodan Milosevic, skippered his own party to a surprisingly strong showing as well. The democrats fractured.

Here's the problem with democracy: You have to live with the results. Election observers agree that the balloting was free and fair. The voters chose criminals, zealots and fanatics of their own free will.

How could this have happened? Weren't the Balkans supposed to be a success story after all the heartache and violence of the 1990s?

It happened because the effort to lift the lid of oppression and introduce free-market principles opened the door to the gangsterism that already had put down hardy roots in the previous regime. Economies throughout the kleptocratic former Yugoslavia are a mess, and the squabbling liberals in power seemed to the average person to be incapable of doing anything about it.

These are countries that under communism -- and before -- knew little of the rule of law, or of the sanctity of contracts, or of due process, or of independent courts, or of the protection of property. Communism in some ways encouraged people's worst instincts -- and what communism didn't encourage, Mr. Milosevic's fire-breathing nationalism did -- and those instincts aren't put away again lightly, especially in an atmosphere of continuing resentment.

The retrograde parties in Serbia didn't win enough seats to form a government on their own, which is a blessing, but Mr. Seselj's may very well take the lead in forging a ruling coalition, perhaps with some of the democrats. Montenegro is likely, finally, to leave its union with Serbia. Croatia and Bosnia can be counted on to bristle. And there's the matter of Kosovo, still occupied by NATO troops, its future still unresolved, its Albanian residents still smoldering with fury over their treatment by the Serbs.

What Yugoslavia teaches us is that the forms of democracy don't by themselves bring peace and prosperity -- not when the ground has been so poisoned by tyranny and bloodshed. Success in Yugoslavia will take many years of good faith and hard work. It's a lesson the nation-builders in Iraq would do well to ponder.

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