BELGRADE — AS Serbia's ruling Communists ignored a storm of fraud charges to proclaim President Slobodan Milosevic the victor in his reelection battle with Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic, an item appeared from the state news agency, Tanjug.
It said Serbia's inflation rate would reach an unprecedented 20,000 percent this year. If the economic free fall continues, it added, inflation in 1993 could easily reach 1 million percent.
This forecast and the electoral gains of an extreme Serb nationalist party are hints of the future Serbia's 10 million people will face under the man who has presided over the collapse of former Yugoslavia and the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"Fascism is knocking on the door," says Petar Lukovic, the deputy editor of the independent Belgrade magazine Vreme. "In the end, we will not be able to get by without bloodshed."
"I see no future," says Vesna Pesic, the leader of the liberal Civic Alliance coalition. "We can expect even worse."
Although observers said Sunday's vote was beset by irregularities, Mr. Panic appears to have little chance of success in his demand for new polls from Mr. Milosevic's election apparatchiks.
Serbia is already isolated by UN economic sanctions and beset by unprecedented economic turmoil, a deeply polarized society, and rampant lawlessness. The West has now served notice that unless Milosevic abandons his present policies, the sanctions will be tightened to possibly include a cutoff of Serbia's postal and communications links, the closure of its borders, and expulsion from all international bodies.
"Milosevic will be given a relatively short time to show he is ready for changes. The international community will then ratchet up the pressure," says a Western diplomat.
Specifically, he says, Milosevic must take "concrete actions" to halt his proxy forces from pursuing "ethnic cleansing."
"We want to see him do everything he can to stop the war," the diplomat says.
But there are no signs that Milosevic is ready to abandon the centuries-old dream of uniting the Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia and Montenegro in a "Greater Serbia" superstate that would dominate the Balkans. Milosevic's hard line
Milosevic and his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) ran during the election campaign under the slogan: "Serbia will not bend down." Last week, he rejected a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe resolution condemning Serbia's role in the conflict and calling on him to halt his support for the Serbian land-grab or face stronger sanctions.
"The resolution is untrue and extremely ungrounded," Milosevic said. "Serbia will not succumb to foreign pressure."
Also ominous is the electoral success of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj, a self-proclaimed "duke" and an apostle of Greater Serbia.
Mr. Seselj also heads the Serbian Chetnik Movement, a Milosevic-nurtured paramilitary band accused by human rights groups and Western governments of massacres and other atrocities against thousands of non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.
With initial results from the state election apparatus showing the SPS losing its majorities in the Yugoslav and Serbian assemblies, Milosevic is expected to forge republic- and federal-level ruling coalitions with Seselj.
The result would almost certainly be a swing far to the right, with more state economic control, new pressure on civil rights and greater repression of minorities, especially the independence-seeking ethnic Albanian majority in southern Kosovo province.
"You would be talking about a real renegade regime beyond the standards of the present one," said the Western diplomat.
With the feud-riven opposition unable to unite, legislative resistance to such a ruling partnership would be token.
Milosevic also commands a huge security apparatus, paramilitary groups, and the loyalty of parts of a Yugoslav Army still in disarray from the collapse of the former federation. Economic morass
The economy is a more likely source of unrest. Serbs are facing hyperinflation, a worthless Yugoslav dinar, and an average monthly wage of $40. More than 800,000 of Serbia's 3.1 million workers have been laid off or forced to take vacations and Serbia is burdened with more than 500,000 refugees.
The economic morass makes it "almost inevitable that Milosevic will keep the question of conflict at the top of the agenda," the Western diplomat says. "He would be forced to find conflict and make conflict somewhere else."
That "somewhere else" could well be Kosovo. A conflict there could easily spill into ethnic Albanian areas of adjacent Macedonia, possibly dragging Albania, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria into the conflict.
"Sooner or later," the Western diplomat warns, "Milosevic is going to run into a more direct confrontation with the international community than the one he already has."