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The outlook for Serbia

The Balkans are crammed with unfinished business: national reconciliation in Bosnia, rebuilding in Kosovo. And don't forget Serbia. That central republic's physical needs in the wake of the Kosovo conflict are huge - more than $29 billion in infrastructure damage alone, according to current estimates. But Serbia's biggest need is political reform. From that could flow wide-ranging reconstruction.

At the moment, Serbia's future political course remains shrouded by the presence of Slobodan Milosevic at the helm. Mr. Milosevic and his allies are scurrying to salvage their jobs in the face of disaster. They appear to be maneuvering for an even stronger grip on power by imposing restrictive laws and branding opponents as traitors.

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But the opposition to Milosevic is clearly broad and deepening. The Serbs flowing out of Kosovo are one source of discontent. Milosevic for years played on their minority status in Kosovo, promising their interests would never be trampled. In turn, they were among his most faithful supporters. Now their anger is turned against their onetime champion.

Also unhappy are the Yugoslav troops returning from Kosovo. They've staged protests over long-withheld back pay - protests the cash-strapped government is hard-pressed to quell. Indeed, Serbia's economy, wobbly before the NATO bombing, is now flattened.

Meanwhile, reform-minded politicians in Belgrade are calling for a change of leadership and early elections. Their calls are bolstered by the hierarchy of the Serbian Orthodox church, which has urged Milosevic to step down. That would be the best thing he could do for the country.

Milosevic's options are greatly narrowed by his status as an indicted war criminal. For now, however, he appears ready to continue the game of playing political opponents off each other to keep alternative leadership from surfacing. That strategy, unfortunately, is abetted by the opposition's fragmented state.

What can the West do to loosen Milosevic's grasp on power and hasten change? The NATO allies have made it clear reconstruction aid will flow to Serbia only when Milosevic is no longer in charge. They have opened the door, however, to humanitarian help, and a large amount of that may be needed as next winter approaches. The aid should include restoration of basic services like electricity and water.

More extensive aid should go to Yugoslavia's other remaining republic, Montenegro. It remained neutral during the war and is striving to distance itself from the Belgrade regime.

With Milosevic in control of national media, one worry is that average Serbs will be told all help is coming from their government, and will never be told what really has happened in Kosovo. But, undoubtedly, word is getting around that Milosevic's blustery promises have again proven empty - Kosovo is in the hands of NATO peacekeepers, effectively lost.

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The deep unhappiness in Serbia could be exploited by ultra-nationalists even more vicious than Milosevic. It could also be turned toward constructive change that will eventually allow Serbia to live in peace with its neighbors. The outside world's treatment right now of this crucial Balkan nation is crucial. Humanitarian help should be extended, with greater help assured when Milosevic goes.

Humanitarian aid should flow, with more to come when Milosevic goes.

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