Milosevic Finds Himself in a Fight to the Finish

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Slobodan Milosevic dared Serbs to overthrow him, and now they’re giving it their best shot. Flames rose from the federal parliament and state TV headquarters in downtown Belgrade Thursday, as demonstrators occupied the buildings, supported by tens of thousands of demonstrators outside. And most worrying for Milosevic may be the fact that the police for the most part refrained from using violence to stop them. The demonstrators are demanding that Milosevic concede the presidency to opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica, who beat the strongman at the polls 11 days ago. Milosevic had challenged his opponents to a fight on the street Wednesday, when his constitutional court responded to opposition claims of electoral fraud by annulling the results and simply ordering a new election. That ruling closed off the last legal avenue for achieving Milosevic’s ouster, and set the scene for a potentially violent showdown.

Milosevic essentially used opposition complaints of electoral fraud to achieve a result that annuls their own victory. The ruling by the country's highest constitutional authority, which has the last word on the matter, requires Milosevic to hold another election six months from now at the earliest — and besides giving him plenty of time to change electoral laws and invent more elaborate forms of cheating, it also entirely discounts the 10-point victory that even the official results had given Kostunica in the first round. But all of that may be academic now that the opposition has moved to claim power directly — Kostunica moved to bring things to a quick and bloodless end Thursday by appealing to the military to recognize his victory in the presidential election. So far, there has been no answer, although the security forces have also avoided coming down hard behind Milosevic.

The strongman may have been banking on the possibility that the opposition coalition would fracture in the heat of violent confrontation that threatens to turn into a civil war. Or that its loose knit alliance would be no match organizationally for Milosevic's security forces in a national battle for power. But that depends on the security forces remaining loyal. To hold on to power in the face of an insurrectional challenge, Milosevic would need his security forces to use violence against demonstrators — and there were plenty of signs in the Belgrade Thursday that troops won’t kill fellow Serbs to keep Milosevic in power. The showdown has also made it impossible for either side to back down. The strongman’s decision to block all legal challenges and the opposition’s drive to forcefully claim the power it won at the ballot box may now have set up a fight to the finish.