Yugoslav leader in a tight corner
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.