BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro, AP – It was just too much. The news that criminal charges against Slobodan Milosevic”s son had been dropped left Snezana Sinadinovic speechless.
"All my hopes are gone now," the 30-year-old psychologist says. "I would not be surprised to see Milosevic back in power any day now."
Sinadinovic”s disappointment echoes that of many Serbs who accuse Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of restoring Milosevic”s legacy nearly five years after the downfall of the autocratic president, who now faces genocide charges at the U.N. war crimes court.
Government critics cite worsening ties with neighbors and between ethnic groups within the country, as well as the resurgence of nationalist rhetoric among politicians and in the media, as examples of Serbia”s return to the past.
They say Milosevic-era judges, police officers and politicians are regaining influence, while reformers, who removed him from power in 2000, have been sidelined.
Independent media, minorities and human rights groups — all targeted under Milosevic — complain of renewed pressure from extremist forces similar to those that were dominant during the former president”s rule.
But more than anything else, liberal Serbs have been angered at Marko Milosevic”s acquittal last week of charges that he had threatened and harassed his father”s political opponents.
"This government should fall because of its absolution of the Milosevic family," said Aleksandar Vlahovic, former privatization minister in the first post-Milosevic leadership.
"Kostunica”s government will go down in history as the government which restored Milosevic”s regime," he said.
Vlahovic was an ally of Zoran Djindjic, Serbia”s first democratic, pro-Western prime minister since World War II, who was gunned down by pro-Milosevic paramilitaries two years ago.
Djindjic orchestrated Milosevic”s ouster in October 2000, and sent him to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague a year later to face genocide charges over the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
But Djindjic”s reformist government collapsed after his assassination, opening the way for a change of course. Kostunica”s conservative Cabinet took over in early 2004, forging an alliance with Milosevic”s Socialist Party.
Rivals say this was an "alliance with the devil" that forced Kostunica to make concessions, such as reinstating Milosevic”s allies in key positions or revoking warrants for the arrest of Milosevic”s son and wife.
Some, like former deputy prime minister Cedomir Jovanovic, accuse Kostunica, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the conservative intellectual elite of "restoring Milosevic”s system of values and fighting against those who want a modern and democratic Serbia."
"The situation is even more complicated than under Milosevic," says Veran Matic, the head of Serbia”s leading independent television and radio station, B92. "The world now views the government as democratic, but all key pillars of Milosevic”s regime are being rehabilitated."
Matic says that his B92 and its employees have faced threats similar to those of the Milosevic era, including hate mail and pressure from nationalist politicians who brand the network anti-Serb.
Kostunica rejects the allegations, arguing that the government has opened the door for accession talks with the European Union and arranged the surrender of more than a dozen war crimes suspects to The Hague court.
On Sunday, Kostunica declared EU integration an absolute priority. He said that "it is very important" that talks with the bloc start on October 5 this year — the fifth anniversary of Milosevic”s ouster.
Serbia faces a number of challenges in its EU bid: international demands for the extradition of the remaining war crimes fugitives, economic troubles, corruption, the mounting political threat from the nationalists and shaky relations with neighbors.
In the past few months, Serbia”s ties with its junior partner, Montenegro, have worsened considerably, as have relations with Macedonia — a traditional southern ally.
In both cases, the hardline Serbian Orthodox Church was at the center of the disputes. In Montenegro, church representatives erected a metal church at a religious site without consulting the authorities, while the jailing of a Serb Orthodox Church leader in Macedonia triggered a crisis between the two countries.
Media and politicians fueled the tensions in a manner ominously similar to that ahead of the Yugoslav wars.
Meanwhile, Belgrade traded accusations with Croatia over their wartime past, while the nationalists held a massive gathering in Belgrade defiantly declaring the Serbs as the biggest victims of the past conflicts.
Former reformist Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic warns that good ties with neighbors are key to Serbia”s European integration.
Svilanovic accused the politicians of pursuing "new nationalism" and trying, as Milosevic did, to turn Serbia into a "regional hegemonist."
Sinadinovic, the psychologist, fears little can be done.
"Everything is the same, only he (Milosevic) is gone," she says.