BELGRADE — VOTERS in Serbia are to cast ballots Sunday in a referendum called by the ruling communists that would authorize early presidential and parliamentary elections.
But in the Byzantine realm of Balkan politics nothing is ever as it appears.
"This is a slight-of-hand trick," a Western diplomat says.
He and other political observers regard the vote as a ploy by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to avoid an electoral challenge as deepening war-induced chaos strengthens his main rival, Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic.
The United States businessman premier of the new Yugoslav federation believes that only Mr. Milosevic's ouster will end the tough United Nations sanctions and oil embargo imposed on Serbia and its tiny dependent, Montenegro, for underwriting Serbian territorial conquests in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. Panic's demands for early federal and republic elections have added weight to similar opposition calls and are striking a responsive chord among a population frustrated with week-long gasoline lines, raging inflation, shortages of basic goods, and spiraling crime.
The latest survey, carried by state-owned NIN magazine, confirmed a major slump in popularity for Milosevic, who won a five-year mandate in December 1990 republic elections that also saw a landslide victory for his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS).
The survey said that of those questioned, 45 percent would support an assembly slate endorsed by Panic and his main ally, Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic, while only 33.5 percent would back SPS candidates led by Milosevic.
Aware that an outright refusal of Panic's challenge would hurt them further, Milosevic and his party devised a dual-track defensive strategy.
On the federal level, Milosevic's massive majority in the Yugoslav Parliament accepted early polls. Meanwhile, it has obstructed passage of a new election law proposed by Panic and designed to give greater representation to Serbia's restive minorities.
At the republic level, the communists hit on the idea of the referendum, which will ask voters to approve or reject a constitutional amendment authorizing polls for Serbia's president and 250-seat parliament by the end of the year. The tactic allowed Milosevic and the 194 SPS deputies to avoid resigning in what would be seen as an admission that they had led Serbia down a disastrous path of war and poverty.
Kosta Cavoski, the vice president of the Serbian Liberal Party, pointed out that if the amendment passes, Milosevic and the SPS would also retain "control from the highest positions of the police, secret police, and media during the election campaign."
More crucially, not only do more than 50 percent of the 6.93 million voters have to participate to legitimize the ballot, but passage of the amendment requires the support of more than half of the electorate - hurdles the ruling party concedes are impossibly high.
"It's the turnout that is the real question," says the diplomat. "This is an act to allow Milosevic to say that people don't want elections, and to deflect pressure from Panic and Cosic."
SPS leaders vehemently deny trying to avoid an electoral test.
"The Socialist Party wants early elections and is not afraid of election results," declared the SPS president, Borisav Jovic.
But opposition leaders contend that if the regime were really ready for elections, it would not have opted for the referendum.
"A referendum is not necessary ... for early elections to be held," says Vojislav Kostunica, the head of the Democratic Party of Serbia. "It is enough for the president to dismiss the assembly. But in that case, he has also to submit his resignation."
Political observers warn that given the deepening crisis, in Serbia, there is a limit to how long Milosevic can stall early polls.
"If they do not take part in elections, we will experience the worst civil conflict in the country and then the current authorities will start a total dictatorship," says Dragan Veselinov, president of the Peasants Party. "The socialists are ready to sacrifice both nation and economy to maintain their political power."