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Will the Winners Tough It Out?

October 01, 2000|Susan Blaustein | Susan Blaustein is a freelance writer and senior consultant for the International Crisis Group

WASHINGTON — Last week's stunning rejection by the Serbian people of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic marks a watershed in the country's politics. Despite a distinctly "unfree and unfair" election, the unified Serbian opposition overwhelmingly defeated the conjugal coalition of Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana "Mira" Markovic, in both presidential and municipal races. But it is unclear, despite huge turnouts for street demonstrations, how much the Serbian people are prepared to risk to defend their formidable electoral gains.

Exhausted by war, corruption, destitution and international sanctions and opprobrium, the Serbian people came out in droves to embrace a little-known legal scholar and self-styled "democratic nationalist" politician, Vojislav Kostunica. An ardent Serb nationalist and strong critic of Western policy toward Yugoslavia, Kostunica talks of "reconciliation" rather than "revenge." His refusal, should he become president, to turn the indicted Milosevic over to the United Nations-mandated International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has reportedly reassured a significant number of Yugoslav army and regime officials that they, too, may be protected from prosecution under a Kostunica-led government. His reputation as an incorruptible outsider also distinguishes him from better-known opposition leaders, all of whom have, at one time or another, betrayed their constituents by cutting deals with Milosevic.

Milosevic, however, has not been a good loser. He is determined to brazen it out in a second round of voting, calculating, perhaps, that if he can't bribe, threaten or cheat his way to reelection, he might actually "win," should Kostunica and his colleagues rest on their first-round victory and refuse to take part. Short of that, Milosevic may use the extra time to stage a provocation--a "terrorist" incident or a signal to his mustered paramilitary units in Montenegro to move against the democratically elected government there--to use as a pretext for declaring martial law. Or he may engineer a pseudo-constitutional arrangement that would effectively funnel all real power from Yugoslavia into the subsidiary republic of Serbia, where he may still be able to manufacture an electoral win sometime next spring. That would leave Kostunica and his victorious opposition forces presiding over an empty federal shell.

But these scenarios appear less and less likely. Even some Milosevic loyalists have acknowledged a partial opposition victory and called upon authorities to respect the citizens' vote. Back-room negotiations are reportedly focused on declaring an opposition victory, with guarantees of a safe exit and haven for Milosevic, other key figures in his entourage and their accumulated fortunes. Belgrade is rife with rumors that some of them are already preparing to flee the country.

Opposition campaign manager Zoran Djindjic has called for a total work stoppage until Milosevic steps down, but he has also preached patience. During the campaign, Kostunica promised not to allow the situation to devolve into "civil war." With many in the Yugoslav army reportedly having voted for Kostunica, and with the police, so far, exhibiting restraint, it's not certain that Milosevic's usually reliable agents of repression would be willing to follow orders from their "supreme commander" to enforce a fraudulent result.

If the popular will does ultimately prevail, it would be a truly Olympian triumph for the Serbian people, who could, at long last, dare to imagine a future free of fear, international isolation and relentless economic hardship. It would also be a vindication for Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, whose breathtaking, consensus-defying decision both to boycott and to monitor the elections helped to de-legitimize the polls and to limit Milosevic's opportunities for fraud. An acknowledged Milosevic defeat would, as well, be an immense relief to allied nations, whose commitment in recent years to seeding democratic change in Serbia has at last borne fruit. Finally, it should encourage Russia, China and other nations that have supported Milosevic to persuade the strongman to give up his power, as well as his office, and to set about building constructive relationships with his successors.

At such time--whether measured in days or months--as Milosevic finally concedes, or the last of his desperate maneuvers fails, Yugoslavia's newly elected government should move quickly to differentiate itself from its predecessor by acting on its campaign commitments to democratic governance, economic reform, human rights and the rule of law. After a decade of Milosevic's corrupting touch, the effort will be difficult and slow.

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