Slobodan Milosevic's fall in Serbia can extinguish the last vestiges of the Communist Party in Eastern Europe that began with Red Army occupation in 1945. Though Tito's Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union in 1948, Yugoslav Communists in the Republic of Serbia did not succumb to the counterrevolutionary wave of 1989 that swept away other Communist regimes around them.
Instead, they adopted ethnic nationalism as a means to retain their villas, hunting lodges and other perquisites of power. Mr. Milosevic and his inner circle have been not only war criminals, extreme nationalists and mafiosi, but also apparatchiks with the bureaucratic knowhow to carry out lethal policies.
Mr. Milosevic's downfall could open many doors for the reconstruction of Serbia, and for Bosnia and Kosovo as well. Yet the real issue for the next administration in Washington will be less the former Yugoslavia than the integration of the entire Balkan peninsula, including Romania and Bulgaria, into Europe. For at the moment, there are two Europes, with the southeast part of the continent a bloc of unstable, impoverished countries where the political and economic trends are mostly bad, this week's revolt against Mr. Milosevic notwithstanding.
The victory of Vojislav Kostunica over Mr. Milosevic was another indication that the Dayton peace accords of 1995, despite their shortcomings, have worn extremely well. The collapse of the criminal regime of the late Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, if followed securely by Mr. Milosevic's in Serbia, would mean that Zagreb and Belgrade are no longer the axes for troublemaking in Bosnia that they were, making NATO's job there easier.
Croatia and Serbia will always seek to advance the interests of their ethnic compatriots in Bosnia, at the expense of each other and of the Bosnian Muslims, no matter who is in charge, democrat or autocrat. But if both are to be transformed into democracies, they must first consolidate their own power through the building of institutions, and help for that can come only from the West. And without Mr. Milosevic to help protect them, it might be only a matter of time before the indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are captured.
Similarly, while the traditional enmity between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo will not dissolve and could even escalate as ethnic Albanians continue to consolidate their own power and criminal networks, at least a democratic Yugoslavia would no longer be the instigator of trouble for NATO in Kosovo to the degree that it has been. NATO has truly become an imperial overlord in the former Yugoslavia, given that Russia's historic power in the Balkans has waned.
But the former Yugoslavia is only part of the troubled Balkans. The widening gulf between Central Europe and the Balkans is strikingly manifested by the different paces of development of Romania (which, with 23 million people, has a larger population than all of the former Yugoslav republics together) and its Central European neighbor to the northwest, Hungary.
Since the reunification of Germany 10 years ago this week, foreign investment in Hungary has been six times that in Romania, despite the fact that Romania's population is more than twice Hungary's. Hungary's average monthly wage is more than twice Romania's. Apart from a few city centers, Romania is a sea of poverty, unemployment, obsolete factories and subsistence agriculture.
Romania's first real democratic president since the early 20th century, Emil Constantinescu, is departing after four years in office with disappointing attempts at reform. In the November elections, the ex-Communists are favored to win. Unlike the former Communists who returned to power democratically in Poland, those in Romania are unreformed.
In Bulgaria the situation is equally bleak. Unemployment, corruption and the paucity of development are so severe that, according to a recent poll, only 4 percent expect their lives to improve; 67 percent of the population say they are living worse than before the Berlin Wall collapsed.
Since 1989, the economies of the Catholic and Protestant countries of Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have all grown faster, or at least have been less stagnant, than those of Orthodox Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia, and largely Muslim Albania. The Balkans were always the poorest part of Europe, but never more so than now.
After the NATO air war against Serbia in 1999, in which Romania and Bulgaria showed themselves to be loyal allies of the West, providing military bases and rights to fly over their territory, hopes ran high in those countries that generous aid would be forthcoming. People there say they have been bitterly disappointed.
An end to the Milosevic era could bring new hope in the Balkans. Mr. Milosevic failed not only as the result of his own miscalculations and the desire among Serbs for a better life that could come only with a new regime, but because America's democratic ideals were backed up by Western military and economic pressure. The NATO air campaign, however ill-conceived it may have been, began a process that -- combined with economic sanctions and substantial Western aid to the Yugoslav opposition -- appears to have removed Serbia from the category of rogue states.
President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright deserve credit for applying the realist principle that projecting power is a prerequisite for the spread of one's values. In the 1930's, it was the Nazis who were applying military pressure and supporting local political parties in the Balkans with money, intelligence, printing presses and other aid. Not surprisingly, fascist ideals were then ascendant.
We should not delude ourselves that the spread of open societies in the Balkans and elsewhere is necessarily a natural development: it is a direct result of the expansion of American imperial authority -- albeit soft and undeclared -- which local populations now see as their self-interest to get along with.
Of course, the world is too vast and its problems too complicated for it to be stabilized by American authority, but the Balkans, contiguous to NATO-led Europe, are a natural area for our expansion. It will be the job of the next administration to expand NATO to the Black Sea and prevent the Balkans from permanently rejoining the Middle East. The fall of Europe's last Communist dictator would offer an unprecedented opportunity, but not a solution to the current division of Europe.
Copyright 2000, The New York Times