We must help Serbia as it returns to normality

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There are plenty of reasons for pessimism in Serbia if you look hard enough. Even before last month's revolution was complete, the doom-sayers were already busy. First, there was the much-vaunted nationalism of Vojislav Kostunica, the man who roundly defeated Milosevic in the polls; Mr Kostunica was portrayed as scarcely better than the man he replaced. In addition, pro-Milosevic hardliners in the police and military are eager to cling to power.

There are plenty of reasons for pessimism in Serbia if you look hard enough. Even before last month's revolution was complete, the doom-sayers were already busy. First, there was the much-vaunted nationalism of Vojislav Kostunica, the man who roundly defeated Milosevic in the polls; Mr Kostunica was portrayed as scarcely better than the man he replaced. In addition, pro-Milosevic hardliners in the police and military are eager to cling to power.

Now, Milosevic himself faces criminal charges - for the breach of planning regulations, not for war crimes. All in all, it seems as though the revolution has run into the sand. President Kostunica has repeatedly made clear that Milosevic should not go on trial at The Hague.

We must never forget the bigger truth, however. Things in Serbia are much better than anybody could have dreamed just a few months ago. Mr Kostunica's nationalism stands no comparison with the brutalism of Milosevic; his foreign minister, Goran Svilanovic, is one of the least nationalist politicians in Yugoslavia. Milosevic's trusties are clinging to power, or cynically re-inventing themselves. But it would have been foolish to expect anything else. They were cynics in power; it would be absurd to expect them to lose their cynicism, when ousted. It remains important that Milosevic should answer for his crimes.

Equally, however, the landscape in Serbia has changed irrevocably and for the better. This means that pressure for him to be delivered up to The Hague is not as essential as it was. The War Crimes Tribunal should still be the preferred option. But the most important thing is not where Milosevic faces justice, but that he faces justice at all. For the moment, the charges against him are relatively trivial. There is, however, little doubt that he will in due course be brought to account for much greater crimes, too.

With Milosevic's Serbia, compromise was unimaginable. Any hint of flexibility only made things worse. Now, compromise is not just possible but essential. Absolutism would be out of place: after a decade of madness, the transformation could never be instant and trouble-free.

Serbia is now on the path to normality. Mr Svilanovic's restoration of diplomatic relations with Britain and other Nato countries is imminent. Britain, in turn, should be ready to give Serbia all the help it needs. The poison is already bleeding out of the system; it is in everybody's interest that the rest of the world should help the democratic change become complete.

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