London Times
Hot in Serbia

Win or lose, Milosevic is dangerous.


September 14 2000

The Yugoslav presidential, parliamentary and local elections on September 24 are shaping into an event of huge significance for the Balkans. The campaign, under way since September 1, is not going according to Slobodan Milosevic's carefully laid plan. The Serbian strongman never intended these elections to be a democratic event. Their whole point is to prolong his own political life, which, until he tore up and rewrote the rump Federation's Constitution last July, would legally have had to end next year. He changed the law to enable him to run for two more four-year terms, as Yugoslavia's first directly elected President. Until now, it never crossed his mind that he would not win by a landslide. Yet democratic is what these elections, could, improbably, turn out to be - at least until it comes to "counting" the ballots.

The campaign has already seen an exceptionally brutal crackdown on political opponents and human rights activists, combining intimidation, beatings, arrests and political kidnappings. It has also, justifiably, been boycotted by the pro-Western, democratic Government of Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Federation. There is no way that this election, which is in any case largely confined to the Serbian republic, can be free and fair. Yet his opponents, far from throwing in the towel, are on a roll. Independent opinion polls consistently put the main opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, well ahead; in a second-round run-off, he would win.

"He's finished," the slogan of the persecuted student movement, Otpor, is everywhere. Mr Milosevic has no intention of being "finished". But to his surprise - and also to that of Western leaders, who had despaired of ever getting Serbia's 18 opposition parties to work together for more than five minutes - they are backing a man able to garner votes not only among Serbia's mostly urban democrats, students and liberal intellectuals but in isolated villages which, fed on a diet of state propaganda and state handouts, have always been Mr Milosevic's to command.

Mr Kostunica, a former lawyer, is hardly, by Western lights, a liberal. He is vehemently nationalistic, a fierce critic of Nato and, in particular, of the US and implacably opposed to Kosovan self-government. But he has strong credentials as a lifelong anti-communist; and his nationalism is a tactical asset, because it makes the efforts of the Milosevic machine to paint as treachery his pledges to return Serbia to "normal life" look manifestly implausible.

With ten days to go, rats are deserting the Milosevic ship; even in Kosovo, the militant leader of the Mitrovica Serbs has sided with Mr Kostunica. Mr Milosevic waited until yesterday to make his first public campaign appearance; and he is rattled. Goran Matic, his Information Minister, comes up with steadily wilder talk of Western plots. The latest, yesterday, is that the US plans to overthrow the regime in the wake of the vote, using Bosnian Serbs disguised as Serbian riot police to back opposition claims of electoral fraud and to persuade voters that the security forces have turned on the regime.

Preposterous as this is, it should be read as a sign that, in extremis, Mr Milosevic could create some such "national emergency" and go from ballot box to gun. His most likely target would be Montenegro, a thorn he is itching to remove from his side, by triggering a "civil" war. Nato, alarmed, is rushing 2,000 extra troops to Kosovo; and the US is openly talking about using ground forces as part of any military action to protect the tiny republic. Western leaders hope for the best in Serbia; they also need actively to prepare for the worst. It will be a hot Balkan autumn - again.

Original article