In Serbia, the feast of St. Sava, which takes place every year on Jan. 27 and commemorates the birth of the prince who founded the Serbian Orthodox Church, is the culmination of the religious calendar, a chance for Serbs to celebrate more than 800 years of nationhood. This year, from Novi Sad to Nis, people jammed into vaulted churches and smoke-darkened monasteries to hear the ancient liturgy. More than a year after Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from power, Serbs have good reason to reflect on the roots of their national identity. During the past decade of war and ethnic strife, Yugoslavia, which once consisted of six republics covering a large chunk of southeastern Europe, has been reduced to just Serbia and Montenegro, with the latter threatening to vote on secession in the spring. And Milosevic, the man who presided over the country's dissolution, goes on trial this week for genocide.
Serbs are struggling with the unresolved questions of his legacy: the future status of Kosovo and Montenegro, the fate of indicted and suspected war criminals who still hold high office, the corruption and cronyism that has brought the economy to the brink of ruin. It's not surprising that people are seeking the solace of religion. "It's normal," Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica tells Time. "It might be because we had so many wars here, or because the church has been ignored or repressed by the state for half a century. But if the authorities are not solving people's problems, they will turn to the church."
One reason authorities aren't solving problems is that they are bogged down by their own infighting. The 18-member coalition that toppled Milosevic is barely holding together. The main rivals are Kostunica, the federal President whose power is limited mainly to matters of foreign policy and the army as well as relations with Montenegro, and Zoran Djindjic, the Prime Minister of Serbia, who controls the critical levers of power in the Serbian republic. Splits between the two became public last year over Milosevic's extradition to the Hague, a move that Djindjic orchestrated through the police service he controls. Kostunica called the effort "a kidnapping." "With Milosevic we had a center of power," says Sonja Biserko, a prominent Belgrade human-rights activist. "Now, that power is atomized. It's hard to figure out what is going on."
Kostunica is hugely popular among ordinary Serbs, getting approval ratings as high as 85%. His rumpled appearance and evident sincerity have provided
a welcome balm after a decade of Machiavellian maneuvering. "Kostunica personifies the victory over the Milosevic regime," says Srbobran Brankovic, head of Belgrade's Medium polling agency. "He is the only politician who is not in some way compromised."
There is another side to Kostunica, though, that his rivals and many Western officials find troubling. "His is a classic Balkan Serb nationalist approach," says a veteran Western diplomat. From the outset, Kostunica has opposed cooperation with the war-crimes tribunal in the Hague, which he condemns as a political institution with an anti-Serb bias. He is also believed to be protecting General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who led Yugoslav troops against NATO in the Kosovo war and is still in charge of the armed forces. Pavkovic is considered a vital potential witness in the Milosevic trial and may also be under investigation himself. In a report last year, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels think tank, accused Kostunica and his party of being "nationalist, Serbo-centric, anti-Western, anti-Hague and continuing to nourish fantasies of a 'greater Serbia.'"
Speaking at Belgrade's sparsely furnished, 1960s-era Federal Palace, Kostunica rejected most of those assertions, while reiterating, albeit in softened form, his criticism of the Hague: "The whole procedure is a long way from the European conception of justice. It's more political than legal. At the same time, it's now clear that the state cannot survive without cooperating." He said efforts to investigate Pavkovic would be premature and could sow instability. Instead, Yugoslavia should focus on revising the Milosevic-era constitution and keeping the federation with Montenegro together. "Discontinuity with the old regime is essential," he says. "But that is not about getting rid of some people. It's about getting rid of institutions."
On that point, Serbia's Prime Minister Djindjic might agree. He has, though, repeatedly insisted that "getting rid of some people" is a priority as well, if only to ensure that by sending indicted war criminals to the Hague his government continues to receive desperately needed Western aid. "The people of Serbia should not be held hostage to the interests of a few individuals," he told reporters in Belgrade recently. And last week he promised to transfer to the Netherlands several other top Serb officials currently under indictment, though they will be asked to travel under their own steam.
Lately, the contest has become personal, with Kostunica's camp accusing Djindjic of corruption and suspiciously close ties to the police force that played a prominent role in the wars of the 1990s. One member of the Djindjic camp last month claimed that Kostunica was allied with the Socialist Party of Serbia, which Milosevic once led, a remark Kostunica called "a sort of hate speech."
Serbia can ill afford such squabbling. Consumer prices rocketed 100% last year and unemployment is rising as the government attempts to privatize moribund state-run industries. While most other post-communist countries in Eastern Europe focus on economic reform, Yugoslavia's leaders bicker over constitutional policy.
Neither camp has taken steps to reform the country's notorious security forces the police, which remain under Djindjic's authority, and the army, which Kostunica controls. The power of the security forces was demonstrated late last year when the notorious Red Berets, a special police unit accused of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, refused to carry out an order to arrest some of their own men on suspicion of war crimes. For three tense days they blocked streets in Belgrade before a deal was cut. "It came very close to bringing the government down," says one Western diplomat. As pressure mounts on members of the security forces to testify at Milosevic's trial, the tension can only get worse. "What we have in power is a naked police and military force that is corrupted," says human-rights activist Biserko. "That, in combination with the conservative tendencies, could mean trouble."
In such an environment, it's easy to see why St. Sava is enjoying a comeback, nearly 800 years after his death. Sava, observes Kostunica, an admirer, "was more than a saint. He was a priest and a statesman fighting in one man." Yugoslavia could use him now.