Milosevic to Arm-Wrestle for the Presidency?

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Slobodan Milosevic lost his battle for reelection — and lost badly, even according to his own count. But now he's challenging his opponents to a battle in the streets to claim their prize. After a triumphant opposition rally in Belgrade Wednesday night at which some 200,000 Serbs demanded that Milosevic abandon his plans to force a runoff vote on October 8, the strongman's electoral commission announced early Thursday that its final results showed opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica with 48.96 percent of the vote compared with Milosevic's 38.62 percent — and ordered the runoff poll because Kostunica had failed to clear the 50 percent hurdle for a first-round victory. The opposition and independent monitors, on the basis of its scrutiny of the count at most polling stations, put Kostunica's share at more than 52 percent, accusing Milosevic of massaging the figures in order to play for time. Kostunica has resolutely vowed to boycott any runoff. Now, though, his supporters will have to make good on their threats to bring Serbia to a standstill with a general strike and street protests until Milosevic steps down.

Even with the backing of the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church, which on Thursday declared Kostunica the winner and urged a peaceful transition, the opposition has a tough task ahead. Right now they're riding a wave of popular anger that will likely be sustained in the coming days as Milosevic blatantly tries to cheat Serb voters. But Milosevic may be calculating that if he manages to hold his regime together for a couple of weeks of street protest and conduct the runoff without Kostunica, the protests might eventually dissipate in disillusion. The challenge for the opposition, then, is to provoke a crisis in the regime in which Milosevic loses the support of the very security forces he's relying on to face down the demonstrators.

Western governments are trying to prod Milosevic into leaving, but after last year's bombings they don't exactly wield much influence in Belgrade. Their best bet for diplomatic leverage remains Moscow, which played the key role in persuading the Serb strongman to back down in Kosovo. Diplomatic efforts are reportedly afoot to coax Milosevic into leaving Serbia and seeking asylum either in Russia or Belarus to avoid prosecution in the Hague. But that may be overstating his immediate crisis — after all, Kostunica has stated that he's not interested in sending Milosevic for trial as a war criminal (a demand that has little resonance in Serbia), and even if Milosevic concedes the presidency, his control of a parliamentary majority would leave him as still potentially the most powerful politician in the country. Still, he can't have failed to read the writing on the wall from these elections — it's a slogan written in spray paint all over Serbia that says, simply, "He's Finished."