Expectations are rising that President Slobodan Milosevic will no longer be able to rule Yugoslavia. But no one predicts he will go quietly.
Both ordinary Serbs and experts agree that his latest efforts to consolidate power by calling early elections appear to have backfired.
Mr. Milosevic conceded late Tuesday that he lost, but that his main opponent, Vojislav Kostunica, had not won enough votes to avoid a presidential runoff.
Experts say, though, that this is when he is at his most dangerous.
"Milosevic was absolutely panicked," says James Lyons, a senior Balkans historian with the International Crisis Group, a high-profile conflict-prevention group. "A lot of people say he's wily, and has all these options, but right now ... he doesn't have a plan. He's just grasping."
The winner-take-all end game for Milosevic's political career appears to be under way. Every move is critical for both sides, analysts say, and the next few days are likely to determine the shape of Yugoslavia's democratic future.
"Milosevic ... wants to stay in power," Mr. Lyons says, adding that he may have gained a little more time with this latest ploy, but his options are few and dwindling.
Mr. Kostunica refused to accept Milosevic's pronouncement and in defiance of police, opposition leaders planned to hold a protest rally last night on the steps of the federal parliament here in the capital.
Kostunica has vowed not to use violence. So maintaining order among the crowds of demonstrators - angered by years of deprivations caused by international sanctions - is paramount, experts say. If the people become violent, that would give Milosevic an excuse to roll tanks into the streets and cancel the elections.
"Milosevic would create a dramatic event to avoid the elections," says Alexandar Tijanic, a respected dissident journalist who was once close to Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, a powerful political player in her own right as leader of the Yugoslav United Left Party.
Another likely scenario would be that Milosevic would create a distraction, possibly an altercation in Yugoslavia's junior republic, Montenegro, as he has in the past by fomenting wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
Some experts say that much of the mid-level ranks of the military voted overwhelmingly for Kostunica. But they say the top levels of the Army, many of whom fear indictments by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, remain loyal to Milosevic.
"The information we have is that 80 percent of the Army voted against [Milosevic]," says Mr. Lyons. "And there are other indications that [Milosevic's coalition] is splitting and people are starting to jump ship. His power foundation may be starting to crumble from within."
Experts say that how the Army and police behave in the next few days will be telling. If either of those institutions split from him, a Ceausescu situation could arise. Nicolae Ceausescu, the former dictator of Romania, was killed by his own military officials on Christmas Day in 1989 because he would not submit to the democratic will of his people and relinquish power.
"I think it's a very feasible scenario," Lyons says. "Sources in Serbia say that the election commission basically approached [opposition coalition leader Zoran] Djindjic and said, 'We're going to take it into a second round, because we can't tell Milosevic that he lost in the first round. He just won't accept it.' "
Meanwhile, Serbs are focused on protests against the possible Oct. 8 runoff vote. Opposition activists distributed 10,000 baby rattles in downtown Belgrade yesterday, calling the president "childish" for refusing to concede a first-round victory. Police orders to remove a stage set up for the evening rally did nothing to diminish their determination.
The opposition also said that Kostunica was the only leader who could negotiate with the president. In the past, Milosevic has successfully played on fierce party rivalries to divide the opposition.
Even if the opposition goes along with the runoff vote, experts say the strategy is risky for Milosevic.
"The problem is that in two weeks, given the popular knowledge, there is no way [Milosevic] could steal the election," Lyons says. "It could be up to 70 percent voting for Kostunica."
But Milosevic's "hope is that the opposition won't call his bluff, they won't turn out for a second round, so he will get all of the votes," he adds.
But that isn't likely. "Kostunica is a person who sees a place for Serbia, with a capital 'S' in Europe," says a former longstanding Western ambassador to Belgrade.
"The ability of Kostunica to reach out to those who are normally quite fatalistic about Yugoslav politics means he would would probably get 70 percent in a second round. So there's a lot of bluff-calling going on now."
The opposition's choice of whether to take part in a second round is "a high-risk strategy either way," the diplomat adds. "The only way they can win with this strategy they have decided on - to not contest a second round - is if they can get the people to take to the streets in large numbers. They've got to get 300,000 to half a million on the streets on a regular basis to get [Milosevic] to back down.
Analysts note that even if Milosevic loses next month's runoff, his term does not end officially until July. In the meantime, he could concoct a new plan to remain in power, regardless of what title he holds.
Milosevic will appoint the next prime minister, and could consolidate power in the federal parliament, where his and his wife's parties won a majority of seats on Sunday. "There is absolutely no chance they will remove themselves willingly," says Mr. Tijanic, the dissident journalist.
In another possible outcome, Milosevic could decide to quit. If the president of Serbia, a Milosevic loyalist, then announced he could not finish out his term, Milosevic could move back into that office, which he held before assuming the Yugoslav presidency.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society