They've Had Enough, But Will He Go Quietly?

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Dictators almost never go gently after elections. And if ever one has had a compelling interest in staying on, it's Slobodan Milosevic. Yugoslavia's malign strongman of 13 years and mastermind of four ever more savage ethnic wars lives under international indictment for crimes against humanity. But, suddenly, the man who successfully depicted himself as being at one with the Serb people has lost his aura of invincibility with the stunning official admission that he came in second in last week's presidential ballot. No one knew which of his nighttime hideouts he was holed up in, but if he was anywhere near downtown Belgrade, he could hear hundreds of thousands of his compatriots chanting "Save Serbia and kill yourself, Slobodan."

Was this the end for Milosevic? Yes, said rival candidate Vojislav Kostunica and hundreds of thousands of Serbs who valiantly voted for him, and all the Western leaders. By the opposition's tally of 51 percent to 36 percent, the challenger won a decisive victory. Milosevic defiantly said no, shaving the official count to 49 percent to 39 percent so he could call for a runoff next week that would buy him time to rewrite the popular verdict. The steely maneuverings of the humiliated President reminded one and all that Milosevic cannot be counted out until he is out.

Presumably, this wasn't how Milosevic had planned things. Even Western leaders doubted that the demoralized Serbs had the gumption to turn against him. He called the vote nine months before his term was up in order to trade on popular resentment of the West's endless sanctions and last year's NATO bombing campaign to drive Serb troops out of Kosovo, where they were persecuting ethnic Albanians. Milosevic expected his control of the media, the security apparatus and the electoral machinery to produce victory. He thought the opposition, torn by perpetual infighting, was a shambles. He never anticipated Vojislav Kostunica.

Neither did anyone else. The obscure 56-year-old constitutional lawyer is an unlikely savior of his nation. He is calm to the point of being boring. He has labored for years in the backwaters of Serbian politics without making much of an impression. As a staunch anticommunist — and a zealous Serb nationalist who criticized past Yugoslav leaders for compromising Serb rights — he riled communist boss Josip Broz Tito enough in 1974 to get himself fired from his professorship at Belgrade University. When the opportunistic Milosevic, in a campaign to win over intellectuals, offered him the job back in 1989, Kostunica refused. Considered modest and honest, a true believer in democracy and the rule of law who once translated the Federalist Papers into Serbo-Croatian, he helped launch a small opposition party in 1992. The highest office he attained was a seat in the Serbian parliament from 1990 to '97.

But what made Kostunica the perfect candidate now was what he was not. He was a humble, bookish scholar, not a brash firebrand pol. He was a vigorous nationalist, not an ethnic killer. He subscribed to multiparty democracy and market economics but never kowtowed to the West. He wanted to end confrontation with Europe and the U.S. but harshly condemned NATO's air war and slammed Washington's aggressive support for the Serbian opposition this past year as "the kiss of death." He vowed not to deliver Milosevic to the Hague, calling the war-crimes tribunal an illegitimate instrument of U.S. hypocrisy. He was unsullied by Serbia's pervasive corruption. He did not cozy up to Milosevic as better-known opposition leaders had. "I've never even met him personally," he has said. When the ideological ragbag of Milosevic opponents looked around for someone to run, they picked Kostunica as the one who could win.

After years of courting military disasters, economic devastation and diplomatic isolation, Serbs were ready for a man decidedly lacking in charisma and historical ambition. Barred from broadcast media, Kostunica diligently drove from village to town, averaging five stops a day, speaking directly to the people. He wooed them with the prospect of being "normal" again, promising "a dull, average European country with an average economy, an average relationship with its neighbors, an average political life." When Milosevic's thugs pelted him with tomatoes and rocks at a campaign rally, he took a cut beneath the eye before retreating, then calmly declared that the assault showed "Milosevic is weaker than ever."

If he ran against Milosevic, he ran for Serbia. Without that platform of patriotism, he never could have won, but it wasn't pandering. His nationalist sentiments run deep. He railed repeatedly against the West for bombing his homeland. He positioned himself as a firm advocate of Serbian interests in Kosovo, promising to negotiate the safe return of the thousands who fled Albanian retribution after the war. He said protecting Milosevic from international war-crimes prosecution was a matter of constitutional sovereignty. He made it clear his Yugoslavia would not become "anybody's protectorate."

Even so, Washington and its European allies are patting themselves on the back for a good return on the $25 million they spent in Yugoslavia building up the opposition (except Kostunica's party, which received no foreign help) with direct grants, training and equipment. The U.S. is ready to deal with anyone but Milosevic, although it realizes President Kostunica could prove a handful. He's not the Serb devil Washington knows, but he's still a determined nationalist with contrary goals.

American officials seem confident Kostunica would at least aim for stability and search for political solutions to Balkan conflicts rather than excite ethnic terror. They think he is making the right moves during this dicey period, pursuing legal appeals to confirm the vote as well as calling for peaceful civil disobedience to shut the country down and force a reckoning on Milosevic. While Kostunica insists that he won't stand in the regime's planned runoff, he remains reluctant to hand Milosevic an uncontested victory. The U.S. and Europe encouragingly promise to lift economic sanctions on Yugoslavia and dish out reconstruction aid if Kostunica takes office. But Washington in particular is keeping its distance to stave off charges of interfering to get rid of Milosevic. "Ultimately," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told TIME, "the people themselves have to do it."

In the past, Milosevic's opponents have usually defeated only themselves. An assortment of dissident parties won municipal elections in the winter of 1996-97 and mounted three months of daily street demonstrations to try to make their defiant ruler concede defeat. But the drive to topple the tyrant lost all steam when egocentric opposition leaders turned on one another, then squandered public trust by cutting personal deals with the regime. Kostunica will need to display uncommon skill and perseverance just to keep his argumentative alliance intact.

Last week Kostunica was only a hopeful president-elect. While his supporters filled the streets shouting that Milosevic was finished, their nemesis still sat in his White Palace, as Belgrade dubs his official seat of power. He's used vote fraud, trumped-up crises and constitutional finagling to stay in power before. Serbs were finally brave enough to cast their votes against him. To get him out of his palace for good, they may have to take his power into their own hands.

Reported by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade and Massimo Calabresi/Washington