New Yugoslav government reaches out to West

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia, AP

Assistance to Yugoslavia’s new leadership is Europe’s “top priority,” France’s foreign minister said Tuesday — a boost to President Vojislav Kostunica as he seeks to consolidate power after years of Slobodan Milosevic’s rule.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine is the first official from a NATO country that bombed Yugoslavia last year to visit Belgrade since last week’s uprising against Milosevic.

“I have come here to express my admiration to Mr. Kostunica and the Serbian people,” Vedrine said after meeting the new Yugoslav leader. “Together they have written a huge page in the democratic history of Europe.”

France is also the current head of the European Union, which lifted sanctions against Yugoslavia on Monday and promised US$2 billion in aid.

“We have made this decision to help strengthen a democratic Yugoslavia,” Vedrine said. “That was Europe’s response to the bravery of the Serb people. Our top priority is to help Yugoslavia consolidate.”

Vedrine said Kostunica will attend an EU summit meeting Friday and Saturday in the French resort of Biarritz.

But Kostunica and his allies still face an uphill race in their efforts to fully rid the state of all remnants of Milosevic’s regime. A key Kostunica aide, Zoran Djindjic, said Tuesday that Milosevic’s aides are trying to retain control over the police.

“The police are a backbone,” Djinjic told reporters, adding that Milosevic’s aides “would like to retain the police under their control.”

Anxious to shore up his power base, Kostunica is putting his supporters in charge of the country’s most important institutions, including the police, judiciary, banks and state-run companies.

Milosevic remains out of public view, holed up at one of the president’s official residences in a Belgrade suburb. But his officials still wield influence in the government of Serbia — Yugoslavia’s larger republic and Milosevic’s former power base.