Southeast Europe prepares for YU elections

NEW YORK, Sep 13, 2000 -- (Reuters) Governments in southeastern Europe expect Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to try to cheat in elections on Sept. 24 but disagree on whether he will win, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.

Either way, Yugoslavia's neighbors know they must prepare to support democratic forces in Yugoslavia after the elections because, even if they win, they will have to struggle to control the state institutions, he told reporters.

The official, who asked not to be named, was reporting on a meeting in New York on Tuesday between U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and representatives of 12 southeastern European countries, including Montenegro.

He said Milosevic and his supporters had already taken "substantial preparations" to rig the elections, by arresting opposition activists, harassing the independent media and gerrymandering the electoral districts.

"As in previous elections, he is preparing ballots with the appropriate candidates names already checked, intimidating voters, making their continued use of state-owned apartments, health insurance, jobs, pensions dependent on their proving that they voted for the state-approved candidates," he added.

"There was agreement around the table that the international community needs to be able to speak strongly when Milosevic attempts to steal the election," he said.


Support would take the form of expressing solidarity with the opposition, inviting them to meetings and keeping the spotlight on abuses by the authorities, he added.

The presidential elections on Sept. 24, and simultaneous elections for parliament and local governments in Serbia, are crucial for Western policy in the Balkans, which is based on the premise that eventually Milosevic will lose power and Serbs will renounce the extreme nationalism of the 1990s.

Opinion polls have suggested that an opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, stands a chance of defeating Milosevic, indicted by a UN war crimes tribunal last year. Belgrade authorities have dismissed the polls as Western propaganda.

The senior official, who knows the Balkans well, said he believed that in a free and fair election the opposition to Milosevic would win.

But he added: "There was a sense (at Albright's meeting) that the one thing no one yet knows is whether the people of Yugoslavia will stand up for the results of an election in which they believe they voted against the man."

The meeting also discussed the possibility that Milosevic would make a move against Montenegro, which is junior partner to Serbia in the Yugoslav federation but which is ruled by democratic moderates friendly with the West.


"There was general agreement around the table that, in the words of one minister, Milosevic should keep his hands off the democratic experiment in Montenegro," the official said.

The United States has said that Milosevic should not imagine that the U.S. presidential elections are distracting attention from Montenegro, in the security of which Washington says it has an important interest.

Earlier on Tuesday, the European Union promised to reward democratic change in Yugoslavia, telling Serbs a place awaited them in Europe if they voted this month to oust Milosevic.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, speaking on behalf of the 15-nation bloc, told the UN General Assembly that under its current leadership, Yugoslavia would be barred from attending a planned EU summit with Western Balkan countries in November.

"The nature of its present regime does not allow it. But the Serbs know that they have their place in the European family and that the EU is looking forward to the day when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is in a position to participate fully in the stabilization and association process and recover its rightful place in Europe," he said.

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