Serbs must join the EU without delay

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The word "revolution" is bandied about too much these days. Even William Hague wants a "Common Sense Revolution". But the term is apt for Thursday's events in Belgrade, which culminated in the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic, and his replacement by Vojislav Kostunica. When authoritarian regimes fall, they tend to do so with breathtaking speed. It happened in Bucharest, in Warsaw, in Berlin, in Prague.

The word "revolution" is bandied about too much these days. Even William Hague wants a "Common Sense Revolution". But the term is apt for Thursday's events in Belgrade, which culminated in the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic, and his replacement by Vojislav Kostunica. When authoritarian regimes fall, they tend to do so with breathtaking speed. It happened in Bucharest, in Warsaw, in Berlin, in Prague.

Now, a decade later, it has happened in Belgrade. But Serbia's problems are not over. How could they be with Milosevic still around? We should not be caught up in the euphoria of recent days and believe otherwise. One of the first difficulties is apparent in Dr Kostunica's snazzy new title: President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Like Milosevic, the new democrat's writ runs beyond the borders of Serbia and Kosovo into the increasingly unwilling partner of Montenegro, despite the fact that a majority there probably want divorce.

No nationalist president of the Serbs is going to relinquish Belgrade's interest in the region; Milosevic went to war with Nato to keep his grip on Kosovo. But with proper guarantees to the Belgrade loyalists, Montenegro should at least be offered the relative autonomy which Kosovan Albanians now boast. It is not a perfect solution - but it is probably the best we can hope for if Kostunica is to avoid further bloodshed.

But Kostunica's problems do not begin at Serbia's border. Once these initial heady days are over, he will have tremendous difficulties keeping his fractious coalition together. Kostunica's position as the sole presidential candidate against Milosevic was a necessary tactic if the opposition was to oust a ruthlessly efficient state, replete with secret police and gagged press.

Now that job is done, the egos of former opposition leaders will be hard to contain. Dr Kostunica has wisely promised fresh elections in 18 months. It must be hoped that until then, ambitions can be held in check. For there is much to do. Rebuilding Serbia into a democratic country will take time. Even after sanctions are lifted this week, the craters from Nato bombs will still scar the capital. When they have been filled, the West-as-enemy mindset which brought the bombs may linger.

And that is where we come in. After the Second World War, Germany was forced to squirm through occupation and re-education by the victors before being allowed into the fold. Nazi evils were, rightly, not forgiven, but by an effort of will they were to some extent put aside. "Don't mention the war" was more than a Fawlty Towers joke: it was a way of compartmentalising our dealings with the nation we had - justifiably - fought to the death.

But once that leap was made, via the Common Market, a democratic Germany proved itself more than capable of living up to its responsibilities. Amid all the guff and hyperbole on both sides of the single currency debate, we must not forget that this is the real triumph of the European project: to lock countries with a history of totalitarianism - from Austria to Spain, Greece to Germany - into a democratic structure, and enable them to deal with their neighbours without violence.

Membership of the European club brings great economic benefits, but imposes a democratic straitjacket on participants. It follows that EU enlargement is vital if we are to stabilise those continental countries still left out of the club.

Following the momentous events in Serbia, it is now time to extend the rights - and the obligations - of EU membership to the Balkans. To force Croatia, Bosnia and yes, even Serbia into lengthy "drying-out" periods, proving their commitment to democracy for years before welcoming them in is likely to prove counterproductive. Rather than giving Balkan democracy time to "bed in", a prolonged wait is more likely to destabilise it. The Balkan states are European. All, Serbia included, should join the EU as soon as possible.

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