Slobo May Have a Nasty Surprise for Al 'n' Dubya

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No matter whom Serbs vote for, the current government's going to get in. But it's what happens after Sunday's election that could once again make Slobodan Milosevic a major league political headache for the West — or even an immediate crisis that lands on President Clinton's desk just as the U.S. election season reaches its crescendo. Milosevic's prime minister, Momir Bulatovic, on Friday confirmed what the opposition has been saying for months: that regardless of the result on Sunday, the Serb strongman would stay in power.

Bulatovic said that was because Milosevic was required by the constitution to serve out his term until July 2001 (notwithstanding the fact that he called the election and the winner is required, by the same constitution, to be sworn in within two weeks). Opposition leaders suspect it won't even get to that, because a government that's had no compunction simply arresting its opposition's campaign workers won't think twice about simply stealing the election — which Milosevic may have to do if he plans to "win," since opinion polls put him in a distant second place behind opposition leader Vojislav Kustonica.

So by Monday we're likely to see a Serb population angry at being denied a legal means of getting rid of Milosevic. To be on the safe side, Milosevic may be tempted to deflect any backlash against his "victory" by initiating a confrontation with NATO. Kosovo still presents plenty of opportunity, but the best bet right now may be Montenegro, where the popular government is moving toward independence from the Yugoslav federation, but where up to one third of the population remains loyal to Belgrade. NATO has warned Milosevic against leaning on the Montenegrins, but if things get hot at home, a manageable confrontation with the West — manageable in the sense that he could initiate it, and then stop it by backing off in Montenegro, if necessary — may become a tempting option.

That would present a colossal headache for Western leaders. They've previously vowed to defend the Montenegrins, but bombing the Serbs just after they'd voted out Milosevic and been denied only by his skulduggery would be playing right into his hands. After all, in his election campaign Milosevic has been running against NATO, and like him, the Western alliance is rather short of fans in Serbia. And Belgrade knows that sending in ground troops may be even less palatable to the West on the eve of a U.S. presidential election than it was during last year's Kosovo crisis. Milosevic made his career out of fomenting consecutive crises over the breakup of Yugoslavia, and Montenegro remains the final, unwritten chapter. By next week, the Serb strongman may be tempted to start writing it.