If Slobodan Milosevic loses the presidency of Yugoslavia - as it appears more and more likely he will - the fallout could forever change the face of the Balkans, creating a new order from Kosovo to Montenegro to Serbia to Bosnia.
Since he rose to power in 1987, Mr. Milosevic has dominated southeast Europe, both because of his unflinching desire for power and his status as leader of the Serbs, the region's most populous ethnic group.
Without him, however, the Balkans becomes an open playing field, in which the international community will have its first real chance to plant democracy in a land that up to now has grown only nationalism.
This could have an enormously positive effect, analysts say, eventually leading to greater stability, normalized relations among neighbors, and a strengthening of regional democracy.
But the road toward recovery in the Balkans will not come easy, especially for the Serbs, who still have bitter rivalries in the region and who still have unfulfilled land claims. Because of that, analysts warn, the international community will have to proceed cautiously, and maintain its high troop levels in Bosnia and Kosovo for a long time to come.
"This could be a very difficult transition," says Sonja Biserko, the chair of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. "It's the beginning of a long haul."
Opening the doors
Already Western powers are urging the Serbs to finish with Milosevic and move closer to Europe.
"If the will of the people is respected, the doors to Europe and the world will be open again to Serbia," President Clinton said Tuesday. "We will take steps with our allies to lift economic sanctions, and the people of Serbia, who have suffered so much finally will have a chance to lead normal lives."
But Mr. Clinton's optimism does not mean the US will drop all sanctions against Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic. The so-called "outer wall" of economic sanctions, which dates to the 1992-1995 Bosnia war, is likely to remain. Those sanctions prevent Yugoslavia from getting much-needed loans from world financial institutions.
One condition for their removal is Serbian cooperation with the international war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, a court that Milosevic's challenger, Vojislav Kostunica, has already said he would reject.
Furthermore, Mr. Kostunica, the man who says he defeated Milosevic by a large margin in Sunday's elections, owes part of his popularity to his strong sense of nationalism and his anti-Western views regarding Kosovo. These views, combined with the changing political landscape, could have an adverse effect on efforts to resolve the dispute over Kosovo, over which NATO conducted a 78-day bombing war.
Ironically, nationalist ethnic Albanians in Kosovo may be the saddest of all groups to see Milosevic go. "The Albanians were banking on Milosevic to legitimize their claims of independence," says Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council Balkans specialist now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But first Milosevic will have to be removed from office. It is expected that he will do almost anything to keep power.
After one round of voting, Kostunica and his supporters say they have over 55 percent of the vote, enough to seal a victory. The Yugoslav electoral commission, which is controlled by Milosevic, has called for a runoff, however, claiming that no candidate received over half the votes.
Kostunica has already rejected that, and it remains unclear how the two sides will resolve their differences. One possibility is that Milosevic will try to strike a deal with the opposition. Or, he may try to hold on to power by force, a move that would be particularly risky, because he may be losing support with the police and Army.
If he is successful, however, the international community would likely recognize a parallel government within Serbia, headed by Mr. Kostunica, sources familiar with the process say.
Visions of tomorrow
Regardless, most pundits in Serbia and in the international community now see Milosevic's demise as inevitable and are predicting that a new climate may soon sweep through the Balkans.
First, Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in Yugoslavia, would be less likely to choose independence, as many there had favored under Milosevic.
"Kostunica could negotiate a new relationship with Montenegro in which Montenegro could be more in control of its own affairs without being independent," says Stojan Cerovic, a Serbian journalist in Washington.
And, a defeat of Milosevic would also be a defeat for hardline Serbs in Bosnia, who up to now have been resisting a power-sharing arrangement with Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
"Bosnia can be saved," says Charles Ingrao, a Purdue University professor who recently met with top Bosnian Serb leaders. "They can continue with a single Bosnia, and there can be a real easing of tensions."
Serbia's relationship with the West, on the other hand, could take a long time to heal. Almost all Serbs, Mr. Kostunica included, remain bitter over the air strikes.
And, in all likelihood, the Serbs will never be friends with the Albanians.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society