Serbs Cast Doubts With Votes

Did the West overlook fraud in Dec. 21 vote rather than risk a win by ultranationalists?

Three months of political debate have passed. Voters have cast ballots four times. One man has even taken an oath of office. But the people of Serbia are still not sure who is their rightful president.

On paper, the winner in the final Dec. 21 election was Socialist Milan Milutinovic, a former foreign minister who is a protg of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

But if there is one popular opinion in politically upended Serbia - which, with tiny Montenegro, makes up rump Yugoslavia - it is that the election was fixed.

"I have no doubt that the Socialists cheated in this election," says Marko Blagojevic, spokesman for the Center for Free Elections and Democracy. "Quite simply, Milutinovic did not get enough votes to win."

Mr. Blagojevic's independent group, which sent 711 monitors to 427 polling sites throughout Serbia, reported ballot stuffing, multiple votes cast by individuals, and the turning away of observers from the opposition party. That was backed by a report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which, citing biased media coverage and general problems with the Serbian electoral system, called the elections "fundamentally flawed."

Radicals cry foul

The losing candidate, Radical Vojislav Seselj, says the results were made possible by the falsification of 700,000 votes cast in favor of Mr. Milutinovic. Mr. Seselj, who tried to block Milutinovic's swearing in before parliament, is now calling for an investigation.

"We will keep fighting until those who are responsible for this forgery are held accountable," says Seselj. "We will use all legal means to reveal the truth."

At stake is the position formerly held by Mr. Milosevic, who, having fulfilled his term limit as president of Serbia, is now president of rump Yugoslavia.

Three previous votes, dating back to October, were invalidated because of low voter turnout. Several opposition parties, citing unfair campaigning conditions, boycotted all four votes.

According to Ognjen Pribicevic, a political scientist at Belgrade University, the Socialist Party of Milosevic and Milutinovic was able to alter the election results because observers from the international community did not want Seselj to win.

Seselj, a former paramilitary leader from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, has been called a "fascist" by Western diplomats. He has said he advocates the use of force to settle ethnic disputes within the country, and he wants to create a greater Serbia that would incorporate parts of Croatia and Bosnia.

"The West is happy that the Socialists stole the elections," Mr. Pribicevic says. "Otherwise Seselj would become president."

Nenad Canak, the leader of a pro-democracy opposition party based in Novi Sad, says the West relies so heavily on Milosevic to keep the peace in Bosnia that it was willing to ignore election irregularities. "They didn't have real people here to investigate," Mr. Canak says.

According to a Western analyst here, international observers hesitated to monitor the elections because they thought doing so would legitimize Serbia's electoral process.

"There was never any serious desire to monitor these elections in the first place," says the analyst, who agreed that the vote had probably been falsified.

Observers say a general political apathy in Serbia will likely allow the results to stand. Just one year ago students and opposition leaders held massive demonstrations in Belgrade to protest fraud in municipal elections. But no such political climate exists today.

As many Serbians see it, first they lost the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Now they are mired in poverty as much of Eastern Europe grows around them. Many say they see politics as a cruel waste of time.

Indeed, a major issue was whether voter turnout reached the 50 percent required by law.

The elections commission reported that 50.53 percent of Serbia's 7 million eligible voters cast ballots.

The Kosovo factor

Critics of the election say the vote tally could have been altered easily in the southern province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians - who are more than 90 percent of the population - have boycotted state elections for the past seven years. Kosovo is a remote area under the heavy-handed control of Milosevic's police force.

According to the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, many irregularities occurred in the city of Vitina. Blagojevic says the elections commission reported 100 percent turnout at 11 polling stations in Vitina that were never open. All votes were recorded in favor of Milutinovic, Blagojevic says.

A spokesman for the dominant political party in Kosovo maintains that no ethnic Albanians voted in Vitina.

"No one here from the Albanian side went to the voting places. That is all we know," says Lulzim Peci of the Democratic League of Kosovo.

The Socialist Party denies any foul play. "No one can obstruct the implementation of the will of the people to elect Milutinovic as their president," Uros Suvakovic, a member of the party's board of directors, told a local newspaper.

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