The Balkan question might finally be answered after the Belgrade revolt

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The Serbian people have finally spoken - and with what an inspiring and mighty roar. They have reclaimed their country from a corrupt and wicked tyranny. They have overthrown the last Communist regime in Europe and completed the revolution of autumn 1989, whose heady odour has been so strong on the joy-filled, half-disbelieving streets of Belgrade this week. And at last, after a decade of unremitting tragedy, they have unlocked the door to a better future for the Balkans.

The Serbian people have finally spoken - and with what an inspiring and mighty roar. They have reclaimed their country from a corrupt and wicked tyranny. They have overthrown the last Communist regime in Europe and completed the revolution of autumn 1989, whose heady odour has been so strong on the joy-filled, half-disbelieving streets of Belgrade this week. And at last, after a decade of unremitting tragedy, they have unlocked the door to a better future for the Balkans.

At the time of writing, the final destination of ex-president Slobodan Milosevic is unclear. Ultimately, however, that is a secondary matter, provided his malign influence is banished for ever from the new Serbia. The best place for him, of course, is before the bar of justice, to answer for the evils he has unleashed upon the region. Possibly he may find refuge in a Belorussian dacha, in one of Saddam Hussein's many residences or, just conceivably, in his own country.

The West is right to insist he be handed over for prosecution; but not to the point that demands for the punishment of one individual, however odious, stand in the way of reconciliation within Serbia andrecovery for an entire region. Just as the fate of Augusto Pinochet was for Chileans to resolve, so Serbia itself, not others, must decide how to deal with Slobodan Milosevic - and in the process come to terms with itself. If Mr Milosevic is to stand trial, it should not be in The Hague, but in Belgrade itself.

The refusal of Vojislav Kostunica, the President-elect, to hand over Mr Milosevic is thus understandable and, in a curious sense, even to be welcomed. Yes, he will not be a soft touch for the West. But it is as well, even essential, that he is not. Had the Serbs believed him to be a cat's-paw of Nato, they would never have voted for him in such numbers. He is accused of being a nationalist - but what national politician anywhere would approve of foreign aircraft raining bombs on his capital?

What is important is that Mr Kostunica is a democrat committed to the rule of law. What is unproven is his ability to govern. Mr Milosevic's miscalculation was to suppose that a fragmented opposition would again allow him to divide and rule. But once the 18-party coalition showed it could stick together behind Mr Kostunica, no amount of intimidation and chicanery could prevent the former president's defeat.

Far less certain is whether unity will long survive the euphoria of victory. The next few weeks and months may be messy. Mr Kostunica may prove a transitional figure, perhaps a mere figurehead. Long years of complicity and corruption in Belgrade are likely to render uncommonly difficult the "de-Nazification" that is required. The risk exists that Serbia will become another Romania, caught in no man's land between a European future and a totalitarian past. Then there are the unquiet ghosts of Yugoslavia past and present. In Bosnia, there is the process of reknitting the multi-ethnic community ripped apart by Mr Milosevic and his henchmen. Nor has Mr Kostunica's triumph greatly clarified Kosovo's future.

The new President was a vehement critic of last year's war and believes the province should remain a part of Yugoslavia. Now he is being embraced by the very West whose bombs "liberated" Kosovo 16 months ago. Small wonder that there is unease among the ethnic Albanian majority who, until now, considered full independence just a matter of time. Only in Montenegro, Serbia's sole surviving sister republic in Yugoslavia, are tensions likely to subside quickly.

But none of that negates the exhilarating truth with which we began. Finally, the conditions for a rebirth of the Balkans are in place. The renaissance promised on paper by the 1999 Stability Pact, signed in Sarajevo amid much back-slapping by President Clinton and others, has failed to materialise - partly as a result of bureaucratic sloth, but primarily because pan-Balkan co-operation and reconstruction is simply impossible with Serbia a pariah.

The turn toward Europe last January by Croatia, once the partner of Mr Milosevic, was a hugely hopeful moment. But Serbia, not Croatia, is the region's most populous country, its hub and, until misrule, sanctions and Nato bombs took their toll, its economic powerhouse. Its impoverishment has been the impoverishment of the entire Balkans. Now that a democratically elected President is in place in Serbia, too, Europe must act boldly.

The removal next week of some EU sanctions is but a first step. An end to the UN arms embargo would be premature at this time, as would a lifting of certain financial sanctions, which might enable Mr Milosevic's most insalubrious henchmen to salt away fortunes abroad. Other projects, however, cannot wait, above all the rebuilding of the Danube bridges whose destruction by Nato bombs so damaged the regional economy.

Finally, as soon as a new government is functioning, an EU-Yugoslav summit should be held, to welcome back Belgrade and direct resources to rebuild its shattered economy. That will cost money - but less than it costs to fight wars and keepfleets in the Adriatic and tens of thousands of peacekeeping troops on the ground.

A Balkan dawn is at hand. The darkness before this dawn has been hideous: a decade of war and massacre, of ethnic cleansing and civilian suffering unmatched in Europe since 1945, largely brought about by Milosevic, but compounded by Western vacillation at crucial moments. All the more reason, then, that Yugoslavia, the Balkans and we more fortunate Europeans do not let this opportunity slip.

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