BELGRADE — Serbia's opposition, backed by the US and other Western powers, appears to have soundly defeated Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, though he may not be ready to admit it.
"This is the dawn of our freedom," opposition presidential candidate Vojislav Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, declared yesterday as celebrating supporters poured into the streets here. "Milosevic is no longer the undisputed, authoritarian leader, and that is most important at this moment."
Western powers warned Mr. Milosevic of "devastating consequences" if he failed to step down, and the European Union said that any effort by Milosevic to claim victory would be a "fraud." (See Milosevic, page 4.)
Milosevic, who has ruled this country for the past 13 years - consolidating power through four separate wars - appears to have backed himself into a corner. On the one side, he's been ostracized by the West - squeezed by United Nations sanctions and a war-crimes indictment. On the other, he played off his domestic popularity after last year's 78-day NATO bombing campaign by calling these elections nine months early.
But voters turned out in record numbers here - more than 70 percent cast ballots for president, parliament, and local officials. Despite widespread reports of irregularities, 3 of 4 competing parties and coalitions agree that the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), which backs Kostunica, is the overwhelming leader.
"It had to happen," says Harry Stajner, director of the independent Media Center in Belgrade. "People are really fed up. You have to queue for oil, you have to queue for sugar, for petrol. The standard is horrible, and inflation is again flourishing - not to speak of the political situation."
Still, the Milosevic coalition is claiming radically different results from the others. A spokeswoman for Milosevic claimed that with 20 percent of the votes counted, the president led with 44 percent to 41 percent for Kostunica. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff would be held Oct. 8 and Milosevic supporters appeared to be favoring this option yesterday.
The opposition alliance, meanwhile, claimed unofficial returns from 51 percent of polling stations showed Kostunica with 53 percent of the vote, to 36 percent for Milosevic.
A history of conflict
Milosevic came to power in the late 1980s, as the formerly communist Yugoslavia began to break apart. He is widely blamed for igniting wars in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, which precipitated United Nations sanctions that are still in place. Then in the spring of 1999, Yugoslav forces under Milosevic's control set off the ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo. NATO responded with a three-month bombing campaign and assumed interim control over Kosovo in June. In May, the UN's War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague indicted Milosevic.
Despite predictions in Serbia and the West that Milosevic would do anything to cling to power - such as send tanks onto the streets of Belgrade, or into Serbia's neighboring Yugoslav republic of Montenegro - voting passed peacefully. Though tension remains high on the streets, rival rallies of opposition and pro-Milosevic supporters - staged as both sides claimed victory - did not turn violent.
"This is now a new Serbia," says Zarko Korac, a philosophy professor and former opposition member of Parliament. "The Serbian people realized that Milosevic was waiting for an opportunity to use force, but they were patient. They came to their ballot boxes, and they cast their vote for democracy."
An air of hope mixed with anxiety hung over Serbia yesterday, following a night of revelry by Kostunica supporters. "I'm going out again this evening. I feel like some awful weight has been lifted from me, something that people from the outside can't understand," says Angelina Mrkic, a dental technician in the central Serbian town of Cacak.
Political experts here say the country is entering an unpredictable phase in which Milosevic will fight to remain in control, but with ever greater risks to his regime and the country. "The ruling coalition has enormous problems," says a source close to Milosevic's Socialist Party. "One faction wants to launch a crackdown, while others want to acknowledge their loss and turn the page. One defining factor is indictments by The Hague War Crimes Tribunal."
Milosevic's control over the country extends through every economic sector, the armed forces, and the police. A change in political power would result in change at every other level as well.
He still has many options, but all of them are risky. The president is an expert in dealing with domestic crises. In 1991 he brought tanks out onto the streets to squash violent demonstrations, then distracted citizens with a series of nationalist wars in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Milosevic responded to massive street demonstration in 1996, over tainted local elections, by allowing opposition parties to take control of some municipalities, including the capital, Belgrade.
"He could do something like in 1996 and use the constitutional court to his favor," says Bosko Prelevic, a former influential Belgrade judge. "One interpretation is that Milosevic can stay in office until his term officially expires in July. In the meantime, he can provoke another conflict somewhere that would change the domestic political situation."
Question of control
But observers say Milosevic has been so discredited in elections that his control over the police could be open to question.
"Last night police had orders to clear the main square, but people refused to obey," says Nenad Canak, an opposition leader from Novi Sad, Yugoslavia's second largest city. "We don't know how they will react anymore, because they've never lost this badly. In previous elections, they always did well enough to claim some legitimacy, but now that's gone."
"The army and police know by what margin he lost. High-ranking officers will have to choose whether they want to become Milosevic's personal guard or remain a legitimate force," Mr. Prelevic says.
The following few days will reveal whether the hard-liners or progressive will emerge victorious within the smitten Milosevic government. Until then, the country remains on edge.
*Scott Peterson contributed to this report from Moscow.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society