- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2000

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia Yugoslavia's once-struggling opposition claimed victory yesterday and urged Slobodan Milosevic to peacefully quit power after 13 years of hard-line rule, after an election marked by a large turnout and accusations of fraud.
Mr. Milosevic, however, showed no signs of conceding defeat. His spokesman, Nikola Sainovic, told reporters early today he doubted there would even be a need for a runoff vote required if no candidate gets more than 50 percent because "our candidate is leading."
The state election commission closed up for the night without announcing any official returns. Voting in which the turnout was estimated at higher than 70 percent was plagued yesterday by reports of blatant irregularities by Milosevic backers, including ballot-box stuffing, the few domestic monitors watching the polls said.
Still, two rival opposition parties said Mr. Milosevic was trailing his strongest challenger, Vojislav Kostunica, and that the best the Yugoslav president could hope for was to head into a runoff Oct. 8. They based the claims on counts by their own vote monitors.
"According to our count, the first-round victory is certain. Dawn is coming to Serbia. I'm excited," Mr. Kostunica said early today. "I'm happy for the people and the country, because it's almost the last moment to take the destiny in our hands. There is much work ahead."
"There is no doubt that we overwhelmingly won on all levels," said opposition campaign manager Zoran Djindjic. "Milosevic has to seriously understand the judgment of history, and he shouldn't gamble any longer. He has to recognize the defeat. It seems, this is the end of his career."
Confident of victory by an opposition that seemed hopelessly fragmented only months ago, huge crowds streamed into the streets of downtown Belgrade late yesterday to await official results. Helmeted riot police carrying shields and armed with tear-gas launchers cordoned off the group, but later withdrew after a concert by Mr. Milosevic's supporters ended.
Similar gatherings were reported in Nis, Novi Sad, Cacak and several other towns in Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia. There were no reports of clashes, and early today the crowds in Belgrade were returning home.
With no official word on results, Western governments held late-night consultations to determine how to respond if Mr. Milosevic rigs the count.
In Washington, the State Department warned that "the world is watching these elections and the response of the authorities in Belgrade very closely."
In the voting, "large numbers of the population … expressed their wishes in an election where the choice was clear," spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We congratulate the people of Yugoslavia on their commitment to democracy."
Mr. Sainovic, who like Mr. Milosevic is under international indictment for war crimes, disputed the opposition claims of victory. He claimed that with 20 percent of the votes counted, Mr. Milosevic was leading with 44 percent, while Mr. Kostunica had 41 percent.
Those figures were different from those posted on the party's own Web site, which showed Mr. Kostunica leading with 44 percent to 41 percent for Mr. Milosevic.
Cedomir Jovanovic, spokesman of Mr. Kostunica's Democratic Opposition of Serbia, said that based on returns from 45 percent of 10,000 polling stations, Mr. Kostunica was leading with 57 percent to 33 percent for Mr. Milosevic. Three other candidates are in the race.
The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, Mr. Milosevic's partner in Serbia's government, reported Mr. Kostunica leading Mr. Milosevic by 53.5 percent to 37.9 percent with about 20 percent of the votes counted. The party admitted its own candidate was defeated.
The United States which has invested millions of dollars in an attempt to organize the traditionally fractured Serbian opposition has made ousting Mr. Milosevic a major goal, believing there can be no stability in the Balkans so long as he remains in power.
The stakes were especially high in the voting, which also included selection of a new parliament and municipal governments.
If Mr. Milosevic loses, he risks extradition to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, which indicted him last year for atrocities committed by his troops in Kosovo. He may also risk massive revenge by Yugoslavs tired of being an impoverished pariah country after a decade of his rule.
The European Union has promised massive aid to Yugoslavia if Mr. Milosevic loses. Montenegro, the smaller republic that along with Serbia forms present-day Yugoslavia, said it would hold an independence referendum if Mr. Milosevic wins.

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