- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

Western governments, eager to stiffen the resolve of Yugoslavia's opposition forces, yesterday demanded that Slobodan Milosevic step down, even before the results from Sunday's presidential vote had been released.
The United States joined the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and governments across Europe in declaring Milosevic challenger Vojislav Kostunica the winner despite what they called massive vote fraud by Mr. Milosevic's government.
In Belgrade yesterday, a tense wait continued as both sides claimed victory. Election officials said results would not be available until today at the earliest.
As an estimated 40,000 opposition supporters rallied in a central Belgrade square, officials of Mr. Kostunica's Democratic Opposition of Serbia said their internal monitoring gave Mr. Kostunica 55.3 percent of the vote to Mr. Milosevic's 34 percent, with the rest scattered among other opposition candidates.
Mr. Milosevic remained in seclusion. His party secretary, Gorica Gajevic, told reporters Mr. Milosevic led with 45 percent to Mr. Kostunica's 40 percent with just over a third of the votes counted.
Under Yugoslav law, the election commission has until Thursday to release the results. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers must meet in a runoff on Oct. 8.
The United States, desperate to see Mr. Milosevic gone, wasn't waiting for the official tally, saying opposition monitors and other unspecified sources pointed to an overwhelming Kostunica win.
"It's quite clear that the democratically committed forces of the opposition appear to be on their way to a convincing victory," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.
Added Bodo Hombach, the European Union's point man for southeastern Europe, "This election result is the beginning of the end for Milosevic and the beginning of democratic development in Yugoslavia."
"Milosevic now wants to play tricks so that he gets a second round of voting," Mr. Hombach said.
Western leaders yesterday combined threats and enticements in an effort to encourage Mr. Kostunica's forces to resist any government bid to steal the vote.
In what U.S. officials insisted yesterday was a coincidence, American and Croatian troops began joint exercises with live ammunition along the border Croatia shares with Yugoslavia, while a flotilla of NATO warships patrolled in the waters off the coast of the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.
The EU and the United States yesterday repeated they would lift sanctions that have isolated Mr. Milosevic's government and damaged the economy in recent years if a democratically elected government takes power.
The sanctions include blocking international bank loans, an embargo on oil and denying visas to Yugoslav officials.
"We have made quite clear that if a democratic change occurs, we will take steps to lift sanctions," Mr. Boucher said yesterday.
With most outside observers convinced Mr. Milosevic will do everything he can to hold onto power in Belgrade, the key variable has been how Mr. Kostunica's supporters will react to evidence of vote fraud. Internal divisions among Serbia's opposition forces have frustrated past efforts by the United States and the EU to oust Mr. Milosevic.
The quick denunciations of voting irregularities in Western capitals were clearly intended to boost the morale of Mr. Milosevic's opponents as the vote counting dragged on.
"The governing coalition is afraid that there has been a turning point" in which people have come to believe in the possibility of a Milosevic defeat, said Vladimir Gligorov, a researcher at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, which has tracked the Yugoslav campaign.
"They are trying to dissolve tensions by delaying the announcement of results," he said. "It depends on what [the Serbian] people think, on whether they are ready to go out on the streets."
The EU's Mr. Hombach said two hopeful signs had emerged in the aftermath of the voting.
Turnout had been unexpectedly large more than 70 percent by some estimates and should boost the opposition totals, he said. He also noted that units of the Yugoslav army, a pillar of the regime's support, remained in their barracks during and after the vote.
U.S. officials said privately the lengthy delay in releasing the vote counts in Belgrade could reflect the regime's shock at the scope of its loss.
"The regime is in a quandary because all their efforts at fraud may still not have been enough to win," said a senior State Department official, speaking on background.
But international condemnation was not universal.
Officials in Russia and Greece, both with longtime ties to Serbia, said their observers of Sunday's largely peaceful elections had not seen any major irregularities.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in Moscow that both the Belgrade government and the opposition "have shown a great deal of responsibility, being aware of the importance of this stage in the life of the country."
"Russia has always said, and repeats, that sanctions introduced by some states against Yugoslavia should be lifted," Mr. Ivanov said.
Ben Barber contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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