PROSPECTS for war or peace in the former Yugoslavia may be greatly influenced by Sunday's presidential elections in Serbia. But after a brief and distorted campaign, the outcome seems a mystery. Many knowledgeable Serbs say powerful Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic will never give up office.
The contest pits Mr. Milosevic, whose "Greater Serbia" policies led to the practice of ethnic cleansing and wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, against Serbian-American millionaire Milan Panic, whose message of "change" and "peace" is catching on. Depending on the outcome, anything is possible - from peace in Bosnia to riots or even civil war in Serbia.
Recent polls show Mr. Panic in a dead heat with Milosevic even though he has only been allowed to campaign for 10 days. This week Panic got a tentative endorsement from revered Serb writer and Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic, although that went unreported on Serbian television. Popular Serb nationalist Vuk Draskovic dropped out of the race earlier to support Panic.
"For the first time, Panic, the wild card, looks like a threat," one Western diplomat says.
One diplomat ticks off a list of hot issues in the Balkans: Sarajevo, the killing of civilians in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the 1.2 million refugees, the United Nations peacekeeping mission, the international embargo, the rise of nationalism in Croatia. But, he says, "The key is Belgrade. The key is the elections: Will Milosevic be voted out?"
Many Serbs, however, are skeptical that Sunday's election is a key. For them, the issue is not whether Milosevic will be voted out, but by what means he will stay in power. Holding the reins of the media, the bureaucracy, and 45,000 seasoned and well-paid police and paramilitary troops, Milosevic will not leave easily, they say. The issue is not democracy, but power politics.
"Milosevic is a dictator," says Stojan Cerovic, editor of the independent magazine Vreme. "You can't get him out by voting."
A 10-year Milosevic-watcher adds: "I'm sorry; I can't picture [Milosevic] waiting by the phone to find out if he is still president."
The immediate question is whether Milosevic can score more than 50 percent among the eight candidates Sunday. If not, he is supposed to face a runoff against Panic, the presumed No. 2. That is the contest many diplomats and Serbs say will not happen. One Serb columnist argues that if Panic outpolls Milosevic by a serious margin - 10 percent - no runoff will occur.
"The first election will go smoothly, but does Milosevic have the nerve to face a second?" a Serb journalist asks. "It is life and death for Milosevic. If Panic loses he goes back to California. But Milosevic stays here as a war criminal."
Scenarios vary on how a runoff might be avoided. Most likely is a "state of emergency" following a crisis Milosevic would create. "He has so many tools, so many cards to play," a diplomat says. Possibilities include a conflict in Kosovo, or the Muslim region of Senjak, or a United Nations-protected area in Croatia. "There may be a massacre of UN soldiers with Belgrade blaming the Croats. Cosic or Panic could be assassinated," a Serb analyst says.
"Panic is very brave," says Belgrade Civic Alliance party leader Vesna Pesic. "There are a lot of guns on the street these days."
Panic polls well among young, urban, and educated voters. His Western-style campaign - he smiles, waves, shakes hands - contrasts with dour ex-Communist politicians. Belgrade writer Nenad Stefanovic says Panic's rhetoric has shifted the acceptable dialogue in Serbia: "Panic is saying `Serbs don't hate Croats. Serbs don't hate Muslims.' For two years, we haven't been allowed to say that."
Milosevic polls well in villages, and among retired people - 60 percent of the voters. If elected, he will continue the policies of "Greater Serbia" - consolidating territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serb-held regions of Croatia.
Panic has battled misfortune. In one city his loudspeakers were "misplaced." Officials in another told him not to come. Nor does Panic get much TV time. On Serbia's main Channel One news, Milosevic averages 27 minutes coverage to Panic's four minutes. The International Republican Institute of New York, a monitoring group, called the official media in Belgrade "a pro-Milosevic propaganda machine" in a Dec. 3 preelection assessment.
In addition, Milosevic is appeasing voters by releasing the last of the consumer goods left from preembargo days, a warehouse official told reporters. As a serious candidate of peace, Panic has raised expectations among many Serbs. Should he lose under suspicious terms, conflict is possible - particularly if Mr. Cosic gets involved. So far, the Army has been neutral.
At bottom, many here say, the elections are really between Cosic and Milosevic - with Panic acting as Cosic's proxy. It is an election over Serbia's soul. Cosic was the guiding spirit of the infamous Greater Serbia "memorandum" of 1986 which Milosevic rode to power. Cosic supported Milosevic until last spring, when he rejected Milosevic's war policies and brought Panic on as prime minister of Yugoslavia. Panic needs Cosic's active support to win - but so far Cosic has not given it.
"Cosic now thinks Milosevic is bad for Serbia," says Mr. Cerovic of Vreme. "He has created a Frankenstein. But he doesn't want to face what he has done. He mistakenly thinks he can stay above it."