Vojislav Kostunica

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Vojislav Kostunica once said that all he wanted for his native Yugoslavia was for it to be a normal, boring country. Despite all that has happened over the past three months, that prospect is a long way off. The legacy of Slobodan Milosevic, a decade of demented warmongering and half a century of authoritarianism will take generations to expunge. But the process may have already begun, even though until recently most of the world scarcely thought it possible. Credit for the reversal-the biggest political surprise in Europe of the past year-lies in no small measure with Kostunica himself. He was the right man at the right time.

Serbia's October revolution was rooted in many things, from the rampant corruption of the Milosevic regime to the impatience of rural Serbs. But while similar conditions existed before, opposition leaders frittered away their chances. Instead of vision, Serbs saw backbiting and unscrupulous deal making. By contrast, Kostunica's dour sense of principle and unsullied past were a balm. His nationalism was also critical. Even the physical awkwardness (he is constantly tugging at his sleeves like a Balkan Mr. Bean) worked in his favor, underscoring his political naiveté. "Serbs crave decency and normality," says Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the VIP daily news bulletin in Belgrade. "Kostunica reflects that state of mind."

Since taking office, Kostunica has moved aggressively to mend ties with neighbors and old enemies. Diplomatic relations have been restored with Bosnia and Slovenia, and the European Union invited Yugoslavia to begin accession talks. With Kostunica at its head, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (dos) is expected to win handily in parliamentary elections Dec. 23. Still, the widely hoped-for dismantling of the security services has yet to begin-a notable omission-and relations with Montenegro and Kosovo are severely strained.

In an interview with Time, Kostunica said that the biggest problem he now faces is "exaggerated expectations." Said he: "A lot of people are expecting prosperity overnight. This is understandable but politically difficult." He argued for caution, especially with the dismantling of institutions before substitutes can be devised. The priority, he said, is to begin the "moral and spiritual rebuilding of society" after 56 years of authoritarianism. "I believe this is possible. My country is older than these authoritarian governments and my people are even older than that." He said he would continue to push for dialogue with Kosovo Albanians, but insisted that the solution for Kosovo should come from within and not be imposed from the outside. Asked how quickly Serbia could recover when war criminals are walking the streets, he responded that an indictment from the international tribunal at the Hague is not the same as guilt, and that in any case decisions about "whether and when anyone should be put on trial" is a question for Yugoslav, not international courts. "We are ready to cooperate with the Hague to the extent that it does not destabilize the country."

Kostunica is keenly aware of the delicate task that lies ahead. He recognizes that a robust defense of Serbia is integral to his political success against Milosevic and his cronies. And while many question his assertion that prosecuting war criminals is not a priority, anxiety about the repercussions of such a hunt are justified. Serbia, thanks to Kostunica and the Serbs who backed him, is a very different place from the country that once loomed so dangerously in the heart of the Balkan peninsula. But it is not boring yet.

With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade