Nationalism is alive and well in the bosom of the new Serb president

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The victory speech to the crowds outside the Belgrade parliament set a tone for the new era. "Our beautiful Serbia has arisen," Yugoslavia's about-to-be president told the dense mass. "I am proud to be a citizen of Serbia. I am proud to belong to our sacred church."

The victory speech to the crowds outside the Belgrade parliament set a tone for the new era. "Our beautiful Serbia has arisen," Yugoslavia's about-to-be president told the dense mass. "I am proud to be a citizen of Serbia. I am proud to belong to our sacred church."

Our sacred church? The phrase was a quick reminder that liberal western values have yet to touch the heart of the Balkans. Orthodox bishops were set to play the lead role in Vojislav Kostunica's inauguration ceremony. Serbia has waved goodbye to communist nationalism. It has welcomed back a more traditional nationalism - a kind that dominated Serbia before the Second World War.

The new man's advisers have reassured the world that he is a "moderate nationalist". But the other inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia remember a politician more than just "aware" of his nationality.

Throughout the 1990s, Mr Kostunica's gloomy, foghorn voice was a familiar background noise to the thunder of the Milosevic propaganda machine. But it was never a voice of conscience. As Serbia staggered deeper into its bloodthirsty territorial wars in Croatia and then in Bosnia, Mr Kostunica did not decry the bloodshed. Instead, he lambasted Milosevic's failure to seize yet more territory, and then to hold on to it.

It should come as no surprise. Yugoslavia's communist authorities expelled Mr Kostunica from the Belgrade law faculty in 1974 for opposing the late President Tito's moves to share power more equitably. In 1992, he left the Democratic Party because it was not nationalist enough for him. He has regularly called for a return to the "old" Yugoslavia before Tito took over, when all the power was in Serbian hands.

Mr Kostunica is a clean pair of hands. He is personally decent. He has a record for principled opposition to the communist system. He is committed to the rule of law. He has never presided over killings. That alone marks him out from his predecessor.

But while the West is rushing to offer Serbia financial aid, their honeymoon with Mr Kostunica may prove short-lived. The new leader is almost as pathologically anti-American as Mr Milosevic. Against that, he is pro-European. But what will happen when he tests his new friendship with Europe and demands Kosovo's prompt reintegration into Serbia?

The Kosovo question cannot be side-stepped, though the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, tried to do so on Friday when he told Channel 4 that independence for Kosovo had never been on the cards anyway. But Mr Cook did not explain how a return to Serbian rule will be sold to two million people who have now tasted 15 months' freedom from Serbian rule.

Then there is Serbia's other explosive neighbour: Bosnia. Mr Kostunica vehemently opposed the 1995 Dayton accords and has called for political union between Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs - a move that threatens to detonate the Dayton deal.

A third potential spanner in the wheel is the Hague War Crimes Tribunal on Yugoslavia. The tribunal's tough Swiss prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, is certain to press hard for action on the sizeable gang of high-level indictees hiding out in Serbia. Mr Milosevic flatly refused to recognise the Hague court and so far Mr Kostunica looks set to continue his policy.

Mr Kostunica may turn out to be an interim leader. After 13 years of Mr Milosevic, the Serbs seem to yearn for a spell of dull worthiness. But they are famously fickle. They adored Tito, and then hated him. They loved Milosevic. Now they want to kill him. It is hard to imagine the phlegmatic Mr Kostunica exciting such emotion, but his turn may come. In the meantime the Serbs want reconciliation with Europe, but not at the cost of their national pride.

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