Election mud wrestling

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic claims no candidate received a majority in this week's elections, but opposition leaders who believe their candidate won are taking to the streets.

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In a move aimed to buy time for Slobodan Milosevic in the wake of a crushing defeat at Sunday’s Yugoslav elections, a Milosevic-controlled elections committee announced Tuesday that neither the Yugoslav president nor his opposition challenger Vojislav Kostunica had garnered enough votes to win the presidential elections in the first round. According to the committee’s results, Kostunica received 48 percent of the votes cast, with 40 percent going to Milosevic. The committee scheduled a runoff between the two for October 8.

But the 18 opposition parties united in the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) say that their figures show Kostunica clearly won in the first round, with 54.66 percent of the vote, well ahead of Milosevic at 35 percent. The DOS united opposition bloc has rejected the call for a runoff and written a letter to the elections commission demanding that it reveal the lists it says it used to come up with its count.

An independent poll monitor group, the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (known by its Serbian acronym CESID), says its figures also show a first-round victory, with Kostunica at 54.4 percent and Milosevic at 37 percent. “If I were Slobodan Milosevic’s advisor,” CESID representative Zoran Lucic told a press conference in the Serbian capital Belgrade Tuesday, “I would suggest that he recognize the results and spare what little strength he has left because he cannot win.”

Even parties outside of the united opposition bloc have said their vote monitors confirm a convincing first-round victory for Kostunica, and have called on Milosevic to accept defeat.

“It’s obvious Kostunica won in the first round,” Ognjen Pribicevic, an advisor to longtime opposition player Vuk Draskovic, said by telephone Tuesday. Draskovic’s party, the Serbian Renewal Movement, ran its own candidate in the presidential elections who did poorly, getting less than 5 percent of the vote. Draskovic was reported to have offered his resignation from the party on Monday but it was not clear the party was going to accept it. “This is DOS’s victory. But we are very happy because this is what we have been waiting for for 10 years,” Pribicevic added, referring to Milosevic’s defeat.



“Milosevic is trying to bide his time and, meanwhile, confuse the citizens and the opposition,” Kostunica said. “The citizens and [the opposition] must overcome this attempt, even if it is not obvious. There is no moral or political reason for us to accept this disrespect of the citizens’ choice.” He went on to pan the commission’s move as “a political fraud” and an “obvious stealing of votes.”

“The regime has to accept reality: that Milosevic lost,” opposition leader Zarko Korac said by telephone from Belgrade Tuesday night. “We will fight for what we think is rightfully ours, which is allowing Kostunica to become the Yugoslav president.”

“The people will go to the streets, and the regime and the police and army will have to think very hard about what they are going to do about it,” Korac added.

The opposition has called its supporters to join what is expected to be a huge public victory celebration in front of the Federal Parliament building in downtown Belgrade Wednesday night. In the three nights since the Sunday elections, large celebrations have drawn tens of thousands of people to their town centers across Serbia to celebrate what many hope is the end of the Milosevic era. The beloved Serbian singer Djordje Balasevic emerged for the first time in two years to sing to a crowd of 30,000 opposition supporters in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad Monday night, telling them, “If Milosevic is not finished, we are,” and that they “should never again allow themselves to stand in lines at embassies and borders” — a reference to Serbia’s international isolation under Milosevic’s 13-year rule.

But while the opposition has assumed a confident posture — refusing to concede to a second round of voting, and calling for the Serbian people to defend their votes by coming out on the streets — independent Serbian analysts warn that Milosevic’s desperation makes for an extremely dangerous situation.

“How Milosevic reacts psychologically to his defeat is very important,” warned Sonja Biserko, director of the Belgrade office of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, and a former foreign ministry official posted to London. “Milosevic cannot get away. But it all depends on how he will step. His logic of survival is to pull down as many people as possible with him. This is very dangerous.”

And there are mounting signs that Milosevic’s traditional power levers — the police, army and his Socialist party — were starting to consider how to position themselves in case of Milosevic’s departure from power.

“We are hearing that a lot of people around Milosevic are starting to think, ‘what kind of future do I have with him?’” opposition leader Zarko Korac said.

A former U.S. State Department official who asked not to be identified said there was convincing evidence that up to 80 percent of the Yugoslav army had voted for Kostunica in the Sunday polls.

Riot police who had kept opposition supporters away from pro-Milosevic concertgoers Sunday night seemed to have disappeared from Belgrade’s streets since then, without violent incident. (In 1996-1997 demonstrations, Milosevic summoned busloads of riot police uniformed in dark-blue camouflage who used batons and water cannons to try to disperse hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators protesting Milosevic’s overturning of local elections results which showed the opposition victorious in 20 Serbian towns.)

Kostunica even praised the police Tuesday, saying they were to be commended for their restraint during the past few days. On Sunday night, opposition supporters were seen giving cigarettes and coffee to the police on duty.

Police in the southern Serbian city of Nis, a traditional opposition power center, actually returned equipment that they had seized a week earlier from the offices of the student pro-democracy group Otpor (Resistance). “Three policemen came by car and brought back all the equipment which they had seized,” Otpor spokesman Milos Krivokapic told a press conference Tuesday, according to independent Belgrade Radio B292. Krivokapic added that the police “were very polite and friendly.”

But regime-controlled Radio TV Serbia, a staunch propaganda vehicle for Milosevic crucial to the “television dictator’s” rule for the past decade, has been acting “strangely,” according to opposition activists. On Tuesday, RTS appeared for the first time in years to actually broadcast a Democratic Opposition press conference, where opposition leaders clearly stated, for all of Serbia’s provincial RTS viewers to see, that it had won decisively in the first round. There were some reports that RTS, whose Belgrade headquarters were bombed last year by NATO, killing several broadcast staff, was “falling apart” inside, with personnel divided over how to proceed in the wake of growing evidence their political master had been voted out by its audience.

The opposition was also vowing to put its election results on the Internet overnight Wednesday — a move they dared the regime-controlled elections commission to match.

Miroslav Hristodoulos, an opposition activist with the DOS campaign, said the events unfolding were Milosevic’s “worst nightmare.”

“Milosevic’s worst nightmare is not the Serbian people on the street, celebrating his defeat,” Hristodoulos said by telephone from DOS headquarters in Belgrade. “Milosevic’s worst nightmare is that the police and army voted overwhelmingly for Kostunica.”

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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