- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2000

Western diplomats and NATO leaders are bracing for trouble if Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, trailing in all the polls, resorts to fraud or violence to win national elections set for Sunday.
NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, expressing a view widely shared by Mr. Milosevic's domestic opponents, said yesterday he hoped for a "free and just vote in Serbia," but doubted that would come to pass.
"We fear the worst," the NATO chief told a German television interviewer yesterday.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright predicted yesterday that Mr. Milosevic will do everything he can to steal the election.
"We will not accept an election where the victory is declared on the basis of a manipulation of a premature declaration of victory," she said.
U.S. officials and private observers said this week that Mr. Milosevic was unlikely to accept a loss in the election, no matter how poorly he does. The key question, they said, is how Serbia's surprisingly united opposition and Mr. Milosevic's backers in the police and security forces react to signs of obvious fraud.
Vojislav Kostunica, a little-known constitutional lawyer and opposition political figure, continues to outpoll Mr. Milosevic and is already seeking the army's support for a free and fair vote this weekend.
Mr. Kostunica, 56, who heads an 18-party coalition of anti-Milosevic parties, told a final campaign rally in Belgrade Wednesday that there would be a "fierce response" if the government tries to rig the vote.
The Democratic Opposition of Serbia, the umbrella group that has rallied behind Mr. Kostunica, said yesterday it would compile its own vote tally Sunday and called on supporters to gather in town squares to follow the returns.
Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, the head of Yugoslavia's military, said the armed forces will accept Mr. Kostunica as head of state if he wins.
But the general also spoke darkly of "provocations" by Western countries, echoing Mr. Milosevic's repeated claims that his opponents are working with NATO to oust him.
"If someone interferes from outside, it will not be quiet," said the general, a staunch ally of Mr. Milosevic.
U.S. officials this week said the popular support that Mr. Kostunica's campaign has attracted will make any attempt to steal the election difficult for Mr. Milosevic.
"The world will know if and when Milosevic cheats," said James C. O'Brien, special adviser to President Clinton on democracy in the Balkans. "This is different from previous Yugoslav elections, when people either weren't sure or, to some extent, didn't care if he did cheat."
Independent analyst James Hooper said the real question "isn't what Milosevic will do to stay in power, but how will the people react when he does try to steal the election."
"This is really the Serbian people's moment of truth," said Mr. Hooper, the director of Balkan programs at the International Crisis Group, an advocacy group that has intensively studied the Yugoslav campaign.
That Sunday's polling will even be close is a surprise both for the Belgrade regime and for many Western observers, who had thought Yugoslavia's chronically divided opposition forces would be unable to unite.
"Kostunica has changed everything," said Vladimir Matic, a professor of international relations at Clemson University and a former member of the Yugoslavian diplomatic service.
Critical of the United States, NATO's Kosovo bombing campaign and the war-crimes indictments of Mr. Milosevic and four top aides, Mr. Kostunica has proven a difficult target for the Yugoslav president.
He has even criticized a U.S. effort to aid Serbia's democratic forces, saying the obvious Western financial support plays into Mr. Milosevic's propaganda campaign.
A series of polls this week put Mr. Kostunica ahead by 5 to 11 percentage points over Mr. Milosevic. Two other opposition candidates attract a combined 15 percent of support.
In two rare campaign appearances this week, Mr. Milosevic denounced his rivals as "Western stooges" and called Mr. Kostunica a "front man" for "a group of dissatisfied, unsuccessful, blackmailed and bribed people who represent the interests of certain Western countries."
Despite his strong Serbian nationalist bent, Mr. Kostunica has also called for radical market reforms of Yugoslavia's economy and for improving Yugoslavia's relations with its Balkan neighbors and with the European Union.
This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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