Milosevic's Iron-Fisted Grip Rusting?

Serb opposition remains cautious as two city elections are restored

It looks as if Serbia's powerful leader, President Slobodan Milosevic, is finally bowing to international criticism and the unprecedented, two-month long street protests that have followed his refusal to hand over local control of some 13 cities to opposition control.

Local election commissions in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the second-largest city, Nis, simultaneously restored opposition victories on Tuesday that had been canceled by the government in November.

"Milosevic wants this to end - and quickly," one senior Socialist Party official told journalists in Belgrade.

While some are hailing the move as a sign of Mr. Milosevic's crumbling resolve, opposition leaders remain cautious.

"I believe nothing," said Zoran Djindjic, one of the opposition leaders, when he heard that the government appeared to be caving in over the local elections. "This is another attempt to buy time. We will continue our protests."

The Belgrade commission did make a similar ruling before, only to see the decision overturned by the courts. But this time the commission rulings were heavily covered by the media, one sign that the opposition victories would be allowed to stand - but the signals are mixed.

One Socialist official reputedly close to Milosevic told state television that the party had not made up its mind yet what to do. The official, Dusan Matkovic, says no decision had been taken about whether to use a 48-hour period - which ends today - to appeal the ruling.

"It is just a stand of the electoral commission," he says. "The legal institutions still have to speak their word."

A commentary by the official Tanjug news agency called the legal basis for the commissions' actions "unusual." Add to this unconfirmed reports in the Belgrade press, quoting Socialist sources, that there would be an appeal, and it seemed the opposition had every reason to be cautions about declaring the end of the crisis over the local election results.

Nicholas Burns, the US State Department spokesman, said Tuesday's announcements were a step in the right direction, but until the opposition deputies take up their seats in the cities assemblies, "We're just going to reserve any kind of commendation for the Belgrade government."

IN another sign that the crisis is coming to a resolution, a number of top Socialist officials have been sacked - probably the long awaited purge, which was expected to accompany any retreat.

Milosevic appeared to be moving to reassert control over his party, which has been in turmoil since the crisis began. Both the hard-line former party leader in Nis and the moderate Socialist mayor of Belgrade were expelled from the party - both have defied Milosevic in recent weeks.

The skeptical Zoran Djinjic can expect to be mayor of Belgrade if the opposition victories are confirmed. Then the opposition would face the huge task of running near bankrupt cities without the cooperation of the Socialist authorities.

But however the political drama in Belgrade unfolds over the next few days, Serbia has been left changed by the mass demonstrations. Djinjic says the image of Serbs has been transformed for the outside world by the peaceful protest, the cause of democracy immeasurably strengthened.

Milosevic has come in for unprecedented criticism from the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Army has abandoned him. The image of his invincibility has been shattered. Mihajo Markov, formerly the Socialist Party's ideologue until he fell out with Milosevic, said of his old boss: "In the past few weeks, he has made more mistakes than in all the previous years."

He added: "Whatever he does from now on, he will never have the power he had before."

Milosevic cannot stand for reelection as Serbian president after his second term, the maximum allowed by the Constitution, runs out this year. He is expected to try to run for Yugoslav president, according to Western officials.

If Milosevic has indeed ordered a handover of the local elections, he could have done so at the start of the nine-week crisis. The Serbian leader has been left damaged. The opposition says it will build on any victory now to try to oust him in the national elections later this year.

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