No matter who is declared the winner of the elections in Yugoslavia this weekend, President Slobodan Milosevic's main challenger, Vojislav Kostunica, has permanently altered the political landscape.
Although independent opinion polls show Mr. Kostunica seven to 10 points ahead, opposition politicians and foreign officials expect election fraud will guarantee a Milosevic victory.
But Yugoslavia analysts note that the campaign has profoundly affected Mr. Milosevic's ability to manipulate the opposition and has put the president on the defensive. Milosevic, who rarely appears in public, addressed two rallies in the past week.
"After this election, nothing will be the same," says Alexandar Tijanic, a prominent journalist and former minister of information. "President Milosevic will no longer be able to speak in the name of the Serbian people and Kostunica is a new kind of opposition leader."
Analysts say the Kostunica campaign has undermined Milosevic's formula for political success. Over the past decade, he has exploited fierce rivalries among Serbia's charismatic political leaders - especially Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic - to divide the opposition. "The previous leaders are now in the background, while Kostunica's campaign is bigger than any political party and represents a movement that can't be manipulated," says Mr. Tijanic.
In the past, Milosevic has been very successful at whipping up patriotic zeal. Now, he has divided the country into patriots and traitors, lovers of freedom and NATO slaves. A trial of the leaders of NATO countries that conducted airstrikes against Yugoslavia last year over Kosovo is scheduled to wrap up today. Each NATO leader had an appointed lawyer and an empty chair before the presiding judge, with the first seat reserved for President Clinton. The trial, which is being shown on state television, featured personal testimony and graphic video footage, including the bombing of Radio Television Serbia, which human rights group Amnesty International labeled a war crime.
"In Libya, there is an official holiday called 'Day of Hatred,' which is directed against the West.... The trial this week has been our very own 'Week of Hatred' and its timing is designed to pound in the message we've been hearing all year, that the Serbian opposition is supported by NATO countries that were bombing us," says Nenad Stefanovic, a strategist with the opposition Democratic Party.
The "NATO lackey" label doesn't stick to Kostunica, however. While the West has poured millions of dollars into supporting Serbia's opposition, Kostunica isn't on its list of favored candidates. A moderate nationalist, he is a harsh critic of the UN's peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and of the NATO bombing campaign.
"It's remarkable that Kostunica has been able to come out of nowhere and establish so much trust in such a short period of time," says Svetlana Djordjezic, political editor of Nin, an independent Belgrade weekly.
Kostunica's popularity also has exacerbated tensions within the three-party ruling coalition made up of Milosevic's Socialist Party, the Yugoslav United Left (JUL) under his wife, Mira Markovic, and Vojislav Seselj's Radical Party.
Ms. Markovic is running for a seat in the federal parliament in what analysts see as a bid to emerge from wielding a strong background influence to a visible role in running the country alongside Milosevic.
Mr. Seselj's party dramatically resigned from the governing board of Radio Television Serbia, claiming the state-controlled national network focused exclusively on the first couple's parties. The pair have made an unprecedented number of campaign appearances. At a certain risk, Milosevic made a historic visit on Wednesday to Montenegro, Serbia's smaller partner in the Yugoslav federation, where he spoke to tens of thousands of supporters.
Montenegro's pro-Western president, Milo Djukanovic, once threatened to arrest Milosevic for war crimes if he came to the republic. The visit emphasized that Montenegro is still a part of Yugoslavia despite Mr. Djukanovic's efforts to distance himself from Belgrade.
Milosevic called the opposition "rats and hyenas" in his Montenegro speech, and in Belgrade accused the opposition of "abusing children and the youth through sects and other intelligence organizations, terrorist groups, and the narco-mafia." Markovic has cast the elections as an ideological fight between the fascism of a "new world order" and poor nations battling for their freedom.
The contrast between the sides was further underlined on Wednesday evening, when Kostunica also held a rally in Belgrade. As he waded through a cheerful crowd of 100,000 downtown, supporters chanted, "Save Serbia from this madhouse, Kostunica" and "He's finished," a popular reference to the president. Milosevic, by contrast, spoke to about 15,000 supporters, many of whom were bused in from the suburbs, in a sports arena that was surrounded by police.
The subject of conversation across Belgrade is what will happen once the polls close on Sunday. The first results are not expected until Monday, but the opposition has urged supporters to take to the streets to celebrate victory. There is speculation that if he loses the vote, Milosevic may trigger unrest as an excuse to impose martial law.
The head of the Yugoslav Army warned that the military would not tolerate disturbances that threatened the stability of the country, suggesting that foreign troops may try to infiltrate over the weekend. In broadcast comments yesterday, Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic said, "We have to be ready to prevent any surprises." He added, "If someone intervenes, there won't be peace."
Material from the wire services was used for this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society