Just what the Balkans didn't need

Observations on Milosevic

First, the historical record of Slobodan Milosevic. He won power by manipulating the mechanisms of a one-party state, toppling his mentor and close friend of 20 years, Ivan Stambolic, in a process of unadulterated Stalinism. (In 2000 his henchmen completed the parricide by murdering Stambolic.) He whipped up Serbian nationalism to strengthen his power base in the Yugoslav federation. He never won a democratic election that he didn't rig. He stole hundreds of millions of dollars for his family and cronies. He was a nepotist. He bore chief responsibility for the break-up of Yugoslavia (only Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian leader, comes close) and for the subsequent wars. Armies and militias under his influence killed tens of thousands. And at home in Serbia, he and the mafia that he employed to ransack the state murdered their opponents at will.

Although some will contest this assessment, I am confident it will also be the dominant view in Serbia itself. So much for Milosevic.

His death, however, comes at a bad time for his country. The Balkans were in a parlous state when the Kosovo war ended and Milosevic was toppled in 2000, with all the Balkan states vulnerable to penetration by a local mafia nurtured on war and sanctions.

Since then the region has edged towards the goal of European integration. Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia are now firmly on the road to EU membership, a tremendous achievement. On the minus side, war in Macedonia was only narrowly avoided; Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo are quasi-protectorates of the west, with next to no economic development; and Serbia is a constitutional mess. For every step forward it has been forced back two for failing to hand over General Ratko Mladic for trial at The Hague.

Serbia's minority government is headed by the moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica. He has made it clear he wants to get Mladic to The Hague, and he is under immense pressure to do so: the EU has warned that if the general isn't delivered by 5 April, that will at least "disrupt" and at worst bring to an end its negotiations with Serbia on EU membership.

Even if Serbia passes the Mladic test, it faces equally tough challenges in the next year. In May Montenegro will hold a referendum on independence from Serbia. This has been driven by its long-time leader, Milo Djukanovic, who broke with Milosevic and financed the Montenegrin administration by smuggling cigarettes to Italy. Javier Solana, the EU security chief who literally invented the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, is desperate to keep it together.

Since Britain and America forced Djukanovic to give up his smuggling he has been casting around for new backers. He found them in Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, and a few other Russian oligarchs who aim to turn Montenegro into an Adriatic R&R centre while taking advantage of its informal money-changing facilities.

Meanwhile the Serbs have another big headache: Kosovo. The US and Britain want to see it independent within the year, and the other "contact group" members, Russia, Germany, France and Italy, seem ready to sign up to this. Privately, Kostunica and other Serbian leaders are resigned to losing Kosovo and they will not force Montenegro to stay if its people want independence. But presiding over the loss of two large slabs of territory (for scant reward from the international community) hardly amounts to a winning election manifesto.

So the Serbian opposition is preparing to take power. That means the Serbian Radical Party, whose leader Vojislav Seselj (awaiting trial for war crimes in The Hague) has a record that makes Milosevic's look good.