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Milosevic scrambles to hang on

Turnout will be crucial as opposition supporters take to the streets to protest the Oct. 8 runoff.

By Scott Peterson and Alex Todorovic Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Special to The Christian Science Monitor / September 28, 2000


Expectations are rising that President Slobodan Milosevic will no longer be able to rule Yugoslavia. But no one predicts he will go quietly.

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Both ordinary Serbs and experts agree that his latest efforts to consolidate power by calling early elections appear to have backfired.

Mr. Milosevic conceded late Tuesday that he lost, but that his main opponent, Vojislav Kostunica, had not won enough votes to avoid a presidential runoff.

Experts say, though, that this is when he is at his most dangerous.

"Milosevic was absolutely panicked," says James Lyons, a senior Balkans historian with the International Crisis Group, a high-profile conflict-prevention group. "A lot of people say he's wily, and has all these options, but right now ... he doesn't have a plan. He's just grasping."

The winner-take-all end game for Milosevic's political career appears to be under way. Every move is critical for both sides, analysts say, and the next few days are likely to determine the shape of Yugoslavia's democratic future.

"Milosevic ... wants to stay in power," Mr. Lyons says, adding that he may have gained a little more time with this latest ploy, but his options are few and dwindling.

Mr. Kostunica refused to accept Milosevic's pronouncement and in defiance of police, opposition leaders planned to hold a protest rally last night on the steps of the federal parliament here in the capital.

Kostunica has vowed not to use violence. So maintaining order among the crowds of demonstrators - angered by years of deprivations caused by international sanctions - is paramount, experts say. If the people become violent, that would give Milosevic an excuse to roll tanks into the streets and cancel the elections.

"Milosevic would create a dramatic event to avoid the elections," says Alexandar Tijanic, a respected dissident journalist who was once close to Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, a powerful political player in her own right as leader of the Yugoslav United Left Party.

Another likely scenario would be that Milosevic would create a distraction, possibly an altercation in Yugoslavia's junior republic, Montenegro, as he has in the past by fomenting wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Some experts say that much of the mid-level ranks of the military voted overwhelmingly for Kostunica. But they say the top levels of the Army, many of whom fear indictments by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, remain loyal to Milosevic.

"The information we have is that 80 percent of the Army voted against [Milosevic]," says Mr. Lyons. "And there are other indications that [Milosevic's coalition] is splitting and people are starting to jump ship. His power foundation may be starting to crumble from within."

Experts say that how the Army and police behave in the next few days will be telling. If either of those institutions split from him, a Ceausescu situation could arise. Nicolae Ceausescu, the former dictator of Romania, was killed by his own military officials on Christmas Day in 1989 because he would not submit to the democratic will of his people and relinquish power.