IT IS FASHIONABLE to belittle the democratic opposition in Serbia. They are divided and unreliable, according to a common estimate; they have disappointed before and will do so again. They lack a single charismatic leader. The proof of their failure is evident: Slobodan Milosevic remains in power.

The reproofs all contain some truth, and yet they are not the whole truth. A delegation of Serbia's democratic leaders is in Washington this week, and it is impressive in many ways. The Alliance for Change, as the coalition for democracy calls itself, unites disparate parties that have set aside personal and political differences in their push for early elections. They and their followers are taking grave risks as they fight for freedom. And they have coalesced around broad principles that represent a welcome departure from the Milosevic era: democracy, economic reform, respect for human rights and regional prerogatives.

Although polls show that Mr. Milosevic is unpopular in his own country, unseating him is not likely to be easy. The indicted war criminal still controls the security forces and most media. Those who challenge him--at universities, for example--lose their jobs and livelihoods. Many Serbs are so impoverished that politics by force has become secondary to the daily struggle to find food.

The leaders who came to Washington this week, including Democratic Party president Zoran Djindjic and the courageous mayor of Cacak, Vladimir Ilic, say they well understand the challenge. They know that outsiders cannot do their work for them, but they come looking for some modest help.

The Clinton administration has rightly been wary of any aid that might end up inadvertently bolstering the current regime. But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will announce today, again rightly, that the United States is prepared to lift some sanctions as soon as free and fair elections take place, and in the meantime to provide some modest support to free media and other pockets of society not under Mr. Milosevic's control. The democratic opposition is not a sure bet, but it is a worthwhile one. The Balkans cannot be stable as long as Mr. Milosevic remains in power.