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YUGOSLAVIA: POWER CHANGES HANDS

Milosevic Concedes Defeat

Yugoslavs Rejoice; Kostunica Set to Take Oath President tells nation that he's going to 'rest a bit and spend more time with my family.' Parliament could convene today.

October 07, 2000|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Slobodan Milosevic conceded defeat Friday in Yugoslavia's presidential elections, bowing to massive street demonstrations against his bid to prolong a 13-year dictatorship that turned his country into a war-stained international pariah.

Appearing pale and exhausted, the Yugoslav leader yielded in a one-minute televised speech. His concession came after the country's highest court and its strongest ally, Russia, both recognized democratic opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica's triumph in the Sept. 24 election, and after the army pledged to obey the president-elect.

"I congratulate Mr. Kostunica on his electoral victory, and I wish much success to all citizens of Yugoslavia," Milosevic said in a halting, emotion-choked voice.

The speech set off a long night of celebration with firecrackers and horn-honking in the streets of Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia and its main republic, Serbia. The city was ruled for a second day by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who on Thursday had seized the federal parliament building, turned the state-controlled media against Milosevic and forced the police to stand back.

With the pillars of his regime crumbling one by one, Milosevic, 59, had little choice but to stop trying to block his rival from taking office. He spoke on television after an hourlong meeting with Kostunica.

But the defeated strongman, indicted last year by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, gave no sign of wanting to seek asylum abroad.

Instead, he indicated a desire to keep his hand in politics, saying he intended to "rest a bit and spend more time with my family . . . and after that to help my party gain force and contribute to future prosperity."

Kostunica, 56, a soft-spoken lawyer barely known outside Yugoslavia until the election, appeared ready to take the oath as president when the country's newly elected parliament convenes, as early as today.

The government had acknowledged that Kostunica outpolled Milosevic in the five-candidate election but said he received less than a majority of votes, requiring a runoff. The opposition rejected that claim, saying Kostunica had taken about 52% of the vote. Milosevic lost his last legal basis for keeping power Friday when the Constitutional Court reversed an earlier ruling that annulled the Sept. 24 vote and instead declared Kostunica the outright winner.

The president-elect said Friday that he had made contact with armed forces commanders and that they agreed to "obey authority" rather than intervene to shore up Milosevic's rule.

"At this point, we have a very stable situation in the country," Kostunica told a television call-in show late Friday.

Kostunica's inauguration would formally end the last Communist-style dictatorship in Eastern Europe, 11 years after the Berlin Wall came down, and the change is expected to lead to a partial lifting of international sanctions against Yugoslavia as early as next week.

The sanctions--imposed by the United Nations, the United States and Europe to punish Milosevic for his role in four ethnic wars in the Balkans--have left Yugoslavia impoverished and isolated.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer announced that his country will push the 15-member European Union on Monday to immediately send aid to Belgrade to help the new authorities maintain the democratic momentum.

"We believe we have a duty to welcome a democratic Serbia with open arms," Fischer told reporters in Berlin.

EU officials in Brussels said Monday's meeting probably will result in the lifting of a European oil embargo and a ban on commercial flights, while financial sanctions will remain until the new government in Belgrade takes control of the economy from Milosevic's cronies.

The wild celebration of Milosevic's downfall went well past 3 a.m. today in the streets of Belgrade, where thousands of young people danced and sang, hugged and kissed as if it were a second chance at Millennium Eve.

Drunk more on the taste of freedom than alcohol, they blew whistles, leaned out the windows of honking cars and joyously waved their black flags decorated with white, clenched fists--emblem of the student-led Otpor, or Resistance, movement, which started Yugoslavia along the road to open rebellion months ago.

After so many years of worrying about how the end of the Milosevic era would come, Serbia's people are still reveling in the surprise of just how fast it happened.

"I can't believe what's happening," said Dragan Jankovic, 31, as he joined a swarm of celebrators in downtown Belgrade late Friday. "We waited for this for more than 10 years. I didn't believe this would end so quickly. I thought more people would die. I thought we'd have to demonstrate for months."

Russia, a powerful but erstwhile ally of Milosevic, helped speed the process by moving belatedly Friday to recognize Kostunica's victory--more than a week after most Western nations did.

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