Milosevic Clenches His Jaw for the Big Punch

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Slobodan Milosevic admits he lost Yugoslavia's presidential election, but not the full extent of his defeat — and that sets the stage for a dramatic showdown with an opposition ready to take to the streets to claim its victory. Preliminary official results announced Tuesday put opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica eight points ahead of the Serb strongman, but deny him the 50 percent margin required to claim first-round victory. Opposition leaders scoff at the figures released by Milosevic's electoral commission, confidently claiming that independent officials monitoring the count at local ballot stations confirm that Kostunica won 55 percent of the vote. Reading Milosevic's call for a runoff election as a play for time, the opposition has flatly rejected a second ballot and vowed to bring the country to a standstill through mass protest until Milosevic accepts the will of the electorate. The first battle of wills will come Wednesday night in Belgrade, where the opposition has scheduled a massive victory celebration but the government has moved busloads of police into position and dismantled the stage built for the rally.

Although the results conceded by the electoral commission are a tremendous psychological blow for Milosevic — he's been forced to acknowledge that he's not the popular choice for president — he retains considerable power. He may yet decide to tough it out, relying on the police and, if necessary, the military, to suppress opposition activity. Meanwhile, as he massages the election results to his advantage, he is probably savoring the possibility that an opposition boycott of any runnoff election might give him an opportunity to fraudulently reclaim the presidency. Mass protests may even prompt him to declare an emergency and call of any further elections. But his acknowledgement of defeat could also be a prelude to a new survival strategy, in which Milosevic cedes the presidency but uses his majority in the federal parliament and his power base inside Serbia to hamstring a Kostunica government.

Still, the tide has turned dramatically against Milosevic. If even the official election results reflect a defeat by the opposition, it may be only a matter of time before the military, business and political elites that have kept the Serb strongman in power begin trying to secure their own positions in a post-Milosevic Yugoslavia. Already the rabid nationalists of Vojislav Seselj's Radical Party — once the most bellicose backers of Milosevic's military misadventures of the past decade — have jumped ship, proclaiming a Kostunica victory and urging that it be respected. Kostunica is no NATO shill — he even suggested the Western alliance may have committed war crimes during last year's bombing campaign during the Kosovo crisis — and it's far from inconceivable that the military would be comfortable with him in the presidency. If Milosevic plunges the country into a new wave of turmoil simply to cling to power, he may find his power base disappearing out from under him.