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Twin New Troubles Beset Yugoslavia's Milosevic

Balkans: Low turnout threatens to void presidential election in Serbia even as enemy leads race in Montenegro.

October 06, 1997|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Balkan strongman Slobodan Milosevic faced damaging election setbacks Sunday, with his opponents claiming the lead in two presidential races and a low turnout threatening to void one of them.

Twin elections in Yugoslavia's last two republics--Serbia and Montenegro--are testing Milosevic's rarely challenged ability to control events throughout the region he has dominated for more than a decade. The Yugoslav president, a consummate political survivor, now finds himself under attack on several fronts.

"Milosevic's maneuvering space is getting smaller and smaller," said Zarko Korac, a political analyst in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital. "Whatever happens Sunday, we are in for a period of serious instability."

In Serbia, opponents of the ruling Socialist Party had urged a boycott of Sunday's presidential runoff, in which Milosevic proxy Zoran Lilic struggled to fend off a strong challenge from ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj--a "choice between two evils," in the words of one opposition leader.

Seselj claimed victory early today, but the precise turnout remained unclear. If less than 50% of the 7.2 million eligible voters cast ballots--as the boycott organizers hope--the election process will have to start all over.

An independent monitoring organization, the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, calculated turnout at about 47%.

The monitors also reported numerous cases of police intimidation aimed at forcing people to vote; illegal pro-Socialist propaganda; and the sighting of stuffed ballot boxes in at least one polling station.

At his party headquarters, Seselj early today celebrated what he claimed was his victory, cutting a cake and doling out bottles of whiskey. At a 3 a.m. news conference, leaders of his Serbian Radical Party announced their calculations that Seselj received nearly 52% of the vote. Turnout will just surpass the 50% mark, they said.

At Lilic's headquarters, after a nervous and unusually silent night, the Socialists said they were slightly ahead of Seselj but that the turnout would "probably" not reach 50%. Adding to the confusion and suspicions of fraud, the official Serbian Election Commission, indirectly controlled by Milosevic, abruptly canceled a Sunday night news conference and instead issued sketchy reports without figures but claiming "satisfactory" attendance at the polls.

Failing to draw voters to the polls would be humiliating for Milosevic, but Lilic losing to Seselj would be worse, and possibly disastrous for the country. A xenophobic former paramilitary commander, Seselj has vowed to take back land lost to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and to expel "disloyal" minorities.

The Serbian Radical Party already had made major inroads into the Socialist power monopoly by scoring significant victories in Sept. 21 parliamentary races and forcing a Lilic-Seselj runoff. The presidency has been vacant since Milosevic, barred constitutionally from a third term as Serbia's leader, instead made himself president of Yugoslavia in July.

On Sunday, Seselj sounded the same anti-West note of nationalism that he favored during the campaign.

"With our victory," Seselj said after voting at a school in suburban Belgrade, "every possibility that Serbia should kneel before a foreign power will be finished."

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Meanwhile, in the presidential vote in Montenegro--Serbia's sole partner in the rump Yugoslavia after this decade's wars of secession--popular Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic was leading Milosevic ally Momir Bulatovic, the incumbent president, in preliminary official results.

Djukanovic, a determined critic of the Belgrade regime, is demanding more autonomy for Montenegro, with the not-so-veiled hint that Montenegrins are ready to secede if Milosevic does not change his totalitarian ways. Milosevic needs the support of the president because the Montenegrin leader can block Milosevic's attempts to change the Yugoslav Constitution to give himself more power.

Regardless of the outcome Sunday, Milosevic finds himself under attack on three fronts, and in recent days he has demonstrated his impatience.

In addition to the challenge from Montenegro and the boycott in Serbia, Milosevic is unsettled by the rising power of a longtime foe, Biljana Plavsic, the Western-backed president of the Bosnian Serbs.

Each victory Plavsic scores--thanks to U.S.-led NATO support--marginalizes Bosnian Serb hard-liners who are faithful to Milosevic. He risks losing his ability to control events on his western flank, the Bosnian Serbs' Republika Srpska.

Closer to home, moderate opposition forces in Belgrade took to the streets again last week after the dismissal of Zoran Djindjic as the city's first non-Communist mayor in 50 years. Organizers hope to replicate the mammoth daily rallies of last winter that forced Milosevic to recognize opposition election victories.

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