- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic Thursday set a Sept. 24 date for new national elections that could extend his grip on power in Belgrade for at least four more years.

The municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections will be the first major test of Mr. Milosevic's popular support since last year's disastrous NATO air war in Kosovo, the latest in a series of Balkan conflicts that the Yugoslav president has provoked in a decade in power.

But the country's chronically squabbling opposition forces will be hard pressed to unite in time for the September polls, especially in light of new electoral rules that Milosevic allies pushed through the country's parliament earlier this month.

"All the polls show that we could oust Milosevic if we act together," said Zoran Stojiljkovic, main coordinator of the Belgrade-based Partnership for Democratic Change Network, an alliance of anti-Milosevic union leaders and political activists.

"But Milosevic right now is a cornered animal who is playing by his own rules," said Mr. Stojiljkovic, part of a delegation of Yugoslav opposition figures who met Thursday with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

Despite the bad polls, the string of territorial losses, and Serbia's diplomatic isolation and deep economic woes, Mr. Milosevic may still rate as the favorite to win the presidency, which will be determined for the first time ever by direct popular vote.

Mr. Milosevic's term was set to run out next July, with a bar against future terms as president of the Yugoslav federation. The new election rules make Mr. Milosevic eligible to serve two more four-year terms.

One leading opposition figure, Vuk Draskovic, said Thursday that his Serbian Renewal Movement party would boycott the election if, as expected, Serbia's sister republic, Montenegro, refuses to take part in the polling.

Montenegro's pro-Western leadership has long chafed under Belgrade's rule. The new election rules, which seriously dilute Montenegro's representation in the federal parliament, have only increased calls within Montenegro for a referendum on independence.

Such a vote could provoke a violent confrontation with Belgrade. Many Serbian analysts believe Mr. Milosevic would welcome such a fight, having used past ethnic clashes to solidify his support among Serbian-nationalist voters.

"Montenegro will undoubtedly not participate in this farce," Predrag Popovic, deputy speaker of Montenegro's parliament, told reporters in the province's capital of Podgorica Thursday.

"These elections will be a show of neo-communists who have inflicted so much evil in our region," said Mr. Popovic.

But Miodrag Vukovic, an adviser to Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, said Montenegro was also determined not to be provoked by the Serbian leader.

"We will pursue a policy of not causing the conflict Milosevic wants so we do not sacrifice democratic Montenegro by legitimizing political violence," said Mr. Vukovic.

A partial boycott of the Sept. 24 vote by Montenegro and some Serbian opposition parties would undoubtedly boost Mr. Milosevic's chances.

Under the new election laws, whoever receives the most votes in the presidential balloting regardless of the level of the turnout is automatically declared the winner.

An internal European Union analysis, obtained by the Reuters news service, has concluded that Mr. Milosevic will likely win the fall vote under the new rules.

The Serbian opposition delegation, in Washington to meet with U.S. government officials and to study election organizing techniques, warned that the election laws make it even more imperative that the anti-Milosevic camps unite.

"On the one side you have a leader who has all the government tools and control of the state media in his hands," said Mr. Stojiljkovic.

"On the other side are a lot of factions with a history of being unable to cooperate," he said. "One by one, none of us has the support of more than 10 percent of the population, so we have to work together."

The United States and the European Union, which have vowed to isolate Yugoslavia so long as Mr. Milosevic remains in power, have condemned the election law changes. State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker earlier this week described the Milosevic government as "rancid."

"We challenge Milosevic to hold free and fair elections and to allow independent media to operate freely," Mr. Reeker said Thursday.

But Nikola Sainovic, Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister and a top official in Mr. Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, said no international election monitors from the 19 nations of the NATO alliance would be allowed to serve as observers.

In addition to the presidential ballot, voters will elect delegates to the upper and lower houses of parliament as well as choose local assemblies and officials in towns and cities across Serbia.

Zoran Djindjic, head of the opposition Serbian Democratic Party, predicted this week that anti-Milosevic factions, which include labor unions, local officials, and a growing student protest movement, will be able to unite in time for the vote.

"By the end of August we'll conduct a reliable opinion poll and whoever gets the strongest support will be our joint candidate against Milosevic," he told reporters Wednesday.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide