For US and European policymakers, the early results of the Yugoslav elections were a diplomatic victory - one that can be chalked up to both the unexpected rise of an opposition leader and solid planning.
For more than a decade, the West has struggled with Slobodan Milosevic, often changing tactics and rarely getting the best of the wily Serbian leader.
But Monday, as the votes were being counted - and disputed - it was clear that Mr. Milosevic was running out of options and his 13-year grip on power was in jeopardy.
With voter turnout at an astonishing 70 percent, both sides claimed preliminary victory in a tally that independent monitors say was critically flawed.
Leaders in Washington and Western Europe, eager to give the final push to topple Europe's most dysfunctional leader, quickly backed the challenger, Vojislav Kostunica.
"[Milosevic] cannot claim a mandate or a legitimate victory," said P.J. Crowley, National Security Council spokesman. "He belongs in one place, [the war-crimes tribunal] in The Hague, and not at the helm of the Yugoslav government."
Now, the challenge for the West will be to persuade the rest of the world to follow their lead - a move that could result in the formal recognition of victory for Mr. Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer who ran at the top of a broad coalition of opposition political parties.
When to act
That recognition could come now, or after a second round of elections, which, according to the Yugoslav Constitution, would be necessary if no candidate won a majority of the votes. (As of Monday morning, Kostunica claimed to have more than 50 percent.)
In order to gain an international consensus, the US and Western Europe would have to win over Russia and Greece, two Slavic cousins of the Serbs and in recent years Milosevic's most ardent supporters.
Officials and analysts predict, however, that Greece is already aboard and Russia has made too many miscalculations with Yugoslavia in the past to risk another mistake.
Formal recognition of a Kostunica victory could be cemented by any of several international bodies, but most likely either the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the six-country contact group on the former Yugoslavia.
Once Kostunica is recognized as the legitimate winner - either now or in a run-off - one of two scenarios is likely to emerge. Kostunica could sweep into power, helped by mass defections from the Milosevic camp. Or, Milosevic could hang on to power, probably with the help of the police and Army.
If the latter happens, analysts say, the international community would try to keep delegitimizing Milosevic, possibly through the United Nations, a route that has been pushed by Richard Holbrooke, the US representative to the UN.
"Now that [the opposition] is on this roll, they need to keep going," says a former State Department official who has been working with groups in Serbia. "And we need to help them."
Who is Kostunica?
One concern of the US is the true nature of Kostunica. He has displayed a distinctly nationalist flair, saying he wants international troops out of Kosovo and that, if elected president, he would not turn Milosevic, or other suspects, over to an international war-crimes court. A week ago he called indicted Bosnian Serb war-crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic "another great Serb."
Yet, it is Kostunica who has made the fall of Milosevic possible. He rose from relative obscurity to become a popular challenger, and it is unlikely he will go away any time soon.
Kostunica was never a favorite of Washington, and that helped him rise in popularity. Serbs remain disenchanted with the West after 78 days of NATO air strikes, which forced them to give up Kosovo in all but name. Kostunica was a rare opposition leader who could say he never took money from Washington.
But while US officials never rallied behind Kostunica, they have been productive in clearing the way for his electoral success.
One key move US diplomats made was helping to marginalize Zoran Djindjic, another popular opposition leader who had proven ineffective in previous elections, and who was blocking the way of other potential leaders.
Also, during the past year, the US invested some $25 million to help build democratic institutions in Serbia, which surely contributed to the high voter turnout.
"It's a good turnout at a difficult time," says Michael Djordjevic, a Serbian-American businessman who has been working with the democratic opposition. "Milosevic did everything he could to discourage people to come to the polls, but they did anyway."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society