Int. Herald Tribune
Alternatives in Serbia

Paris, Saturday, September 23, 2000

Yugoslavia holds a presidential election Sunday, and the candidate currently leading in the polls is an ardent Serbian nationalist who rarely misses an opportunity to bash NATO or the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. We are referring, of course, to the candidate of the democratic opposition, a previously obscure Belgrade lawyer named Vojislav Kostunica. Given that the alternative, Slobodan Milosevic, is demonstrably worse, both the disparate factions of the Serbian opposition and the United States have thrown their support behind Mr. Kostunica. Indeed, U.S. and Western European governments have poured millions of dollars into opposition political organizations and, as a further effort to build support for Mr. Kostunica, promised to lift economic sanctions on Yugoslavia if Mr. Milosevic is defeated.

On balance, these are the right policies. It is an on-balance judgment because the very prominence of Western support for the opposition permits Mr. Milosevic to portray himself as the savior of Serbian national independence and provides him with a ready-made excuse - foreign interference - to annul an unfavorable outcome. Still, Mr. Milosevic, who recently labeled his opponents ''rabid rats and hyenas,'' would have called them traitors even if they had not received a dime from abroad. And the consensus of election observers is that he will probably resort to massive fraud rather than permit even the appearance of an opposition victory. Better to have given the opposition - flawed as it is - the means with which to make a race of it.

There is a rough analogy between the policy dilemma the United States faces in Yugoslavia and the one it has faced in Iraq since the conclusion of the Gulf War. The United States opposes the reintegration of either nation into the international community as long as their respective aggression-prone dictators are in power. Yet, having waged successful wars that stopped short of toppling either Mr. Milosevic or Saddam Hussein, the United States is left counting on internal opposition forces. Yugoslavia's oppositionists, despite intense and sometimes violent pressure from the Milosevic regime, have proved stronger than Iraq's, and stronger than was expected even a few months ago.

Mostly for lack of a better strategy, some in the U.S. government entertain the hope that the spectacle of a massive Milosevic-engineered fraud could catalyze further popular or military discontent and thus hasten his downfall. It is just as likely, or likelier, that Mr. Milosevic will survive indefinitely through a mixture of force, fraud and residual popular support. One possible method of rallying the nation, or diverting its attention, would be to launch a military assault on the rebellious pro-Western republic of Montenegro. In that case, the opposition would be highly vulnerable, and U.S. and European allies would be faced with only hard choices about what to do next - including, possibly, a decision whether to use military force in the Balkans again.

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