As Yugoslavia prepares for elections later this month, President Slobodan Milosevic hopes to prove he is as indestructible as President Clinton. With NATO ships in position and threats of an election boycott by member republic Montenegro, the region is tense with anticipation of what Milosevic might do to stay in power.
"It's election time in the Balkans, and we all know what that means: bloodshed," a veteran war photographer said recently as he waited to catch a plane at the airport in Zagreb.
Montenegro's response to the election results could trigger new conflict in Yugoslavia. The pro-Western leader of Montenegro, the smaller republic in the Yugoslav federation, has vowed to call a referendum on independence from Belgrade should Milosevic cement his rule for another four years. It was in reaction to similar moves by the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia to seek independence, and the independence aspirations of the Albanian majority in the Serbian province of Kosovo, that Milosevic launched conflicts in the 1990s that killed more than 200,000.
Milosevic has called Yugoslav presidential, parliamentary and Serbian local elections for Sept. 24. For the first time, he faces real competition. Several recent polls have shown the opposition presidential candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, well ahead of Milosevic. But in spite of the polls, almost no one believes Milosevic will allow anyone else to win.
Milosevic was president of Serbia when Bosnia's war was raging and when Clinton took over the reins from President George Bush. By many accounts, Milosevic expects to outlast Clinton in power. He also has stakes in the coming U.S. contest, since many believe that Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush would, like his father, be more inclined to keep U.S. troops and NATO out of Milosevic's Balkan war-mongering.
In Serbia, Milosevic's regime has led to a renewed crackdown on the opposition movement. And in Montenegro, fears are running high.
Observers predict that Milosevic may take advantage of the six weeks between Yugoslav and U.S. presidential elections to strike out against the pro-Western, independence-minded president of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, who has refused to participate in the Yugoslav elections. Djukanovic says he doesn't want to give legitimacy to a Yugoslavia his republic wants to exit. Many fear Djukanovic's boycott and his threat to hold a referendum on independence could trigger a civil war between Yugoslav army forces and special Montenegrin police forces loyal to Djukanovic.
Fears of an "October surprise" are fueled in part by a sense that the U.S. may be particularly reluctant to intervene in a new Balkan conflict in the run up to the U.S. presidential race. The fact that NATO still maintains more than 60,000 peacekeeping troops in the Balkans could become a campaign issue.
Milosevic may have another reason to move against Djukanovic in October. The Yugoslav presidential elections are due to be held in two rounds, the first Sept. 24 and, if no single candidate grabs a majority, a runoff two weeks later. Several polls have indicated that the united opposition's candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, would win a second round against Milosevic once "spoiler" candidates are eliminated. Balkans analysts believe that Milosevic may be looking for a pretext -- such as conflict in Montenegro -- to cancel that second round.
The West has repeatedly warned Milosevic against moving on Montenegro. NATO has 20,000 peacekeeping troops in Bosnia and another 40,000 in Kosovo. But despite that military presence, most analysts do not believe NATO would intervene to prevent Milosevic from acting against Montenegro. To date, NATO has not provided Djukanovic with the security guarantee that he has requested.
Even so, Western forces have stepped up their alert to watch Milosevic's hand. Last week, one British and two U.S. Navy ships moved into the Croatian ports of Split and Dubrovnik, just up the Adriatic coastline from Montenegro. With 3,500 rapid-response soldiers onboard, the move seems to indicate that the West is preparing, if needed be, to evacuate some of the hundreds of international staffers working in the region as humanitarian aid workers and diplomats, not to defer a coup attempt.
Serbs, then, are on their own. Eighteen Serbian opposition parties have united behind presidential candidate Kostunica, a moderate nationalist law professor who has long headed a small opposition party, the Democratic Party of Serbia. Opposition activists have been encouraged by poll results that show Kostunica ahead of Milosevic by 35 to 23 percent, according to Belgrade's Institute of Social Sciences.
But despite evidence that many Serbs would vote for the changes Kostunica promises, the united opposition is crippled by two things: pervasive cynicism and a lack of unity. About 46 percent of the Serbian public has said they believe that no matter how they vote, Milosevic will somehow engineer a way to stay in power.
Opposition supporters trying to battle that cynicism have been hindered by the refusal of Vuk Draskovic, the leader of Serbia's largest opposition party, the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), to back Kostunica. Instead, Draskovic, who is recovering from a June assassination attempt in the Montenegrin seaside town of Budva, has decided to run a separate "spoiler" presidential candidate from his own party, Belgrade mayor Vojislav Mihailovic.
The move will split the opposition vote, and thus help Milosevic. In addition, Kostunica has refused to allow Draskovic's party to run on joint lists with the united opposition at simultaneous local elections. That means that the opposition is certain to lose local power it gained in two dozen towns across Serbia in 1996. That also means the potential loss of the independent television stations, which the opposition was able to gain hold of via local power.
Another disturbing twist to the election season has been the disappearance of former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic, who went missing last month during his usual morning jog through a Belgrade park. Stambolic, who helped Milosevic rise through the ranks of the Yugoslav Communist Party during the 1980s, was eventually dumped from power in a political move organized by his protigi, making way for Milosevic to become Serbian president.
Most observers in Belgrade believe that Stambolic was kidnapped by members of Milosevic's state security, although it is unclear what political threat the long-retired Stambolic held for the regime. Stambolic has, like some other members of Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, become in recent years critical of Milosevic, although he kept a more discreet profile than other opposition politicians. Some members of the Serbian opposition say Stambolic had been in contact with them about the decision of who to select as the united opposition's presidential candidate, and had even been toying with the idea of running for president himself.
Despite the disappearance and the refusal of SPO to back Kostunica, opposition leaders are trying to overcome voter cynicism with an ingredient rarely found in Serbian politics -- optimism.
At a press conference last week to launch the opposition's campaign, longtime opposition leader Zoran Djindjic used a pointer to outline the dozens of Serbian towns the united opposition will visit in the last weeks before the election. To date, Milosevic has made no campaign appearances.
"Milosevic has never lost any election before," says opposition leader Zarko Korac. "If he ever loses, it would be an important message to his own party."
But Korac adds, "We don't think he'll hand over power. We're not that naive."