- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

To uphold free and fair elections in a country plagued by ethnic conflicts, a country's dictator should a) call elections one year earlier than scheduled b) make it constitutional for the dictator to have two more terms of office c) kidnap the opposition while he is out for a jog. In the case of Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, all three alternatives may qualify as fair play in his campaign strategy to win the Sept. 24 elections.

Ivan Stambolic, the former president of Serbia, had just finished his jog and was resting on a park bench Friday when a white van pulled up next to him, and he vanished. Coincidence, or part of Mr. Milosevic's relentless, corrupt campaign to stay in power? Consider the facts: Mr. Stambolic has been mentioned as a possible candidate to run against Mr. Milosevic in the presidential elections. He has been quite vocal about his opposition to the dictator in interviews.

Mr. Stambolic and the dictator were once best friends and went to university together in Belgrade. Mr. Stambolic, who had significant contacts in communist Yugoslavia, paved the way for Mr. Milosevic's career. First he got him a financially rewarding job in the 1970s running a state gas company and bank. Then in 1986, Mr. Stambolic became president of Serbia and named his college friend head of Serbia's Central Committee. When Serbian demonstrations against the ethnic Albanian police were getting out of hand in Kosovo in 1987, he sent Mr. Milosevic to calm down his fellow Serbs. Instead, Mr. Milosevic seized the opportunity to stir up nationalist extremism among the Serb crowds, then went back to Belgrade and ousted Mr. Stambolic.

As of last week Mr. Stambolic was back, and the oft-divided opposition parties were starting to look unified. In a survey conducted this month in Serbia by the Institute of Social Sciences, Mr. Milosevic would only get 23 percent of the vote in the upcoming elections, with the candidate of the bloc of 15 opposition groups, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), getting 35 percent.

If this doesn't make the timing and manner of Mr. Stambolic's disappearance look suspect, consider the Serbian response since the disappearance as reported by Reuters. The DOS, which has united to try to oust Mr. Milosevic in the upcoming election, said in a statement that the fact that "state media do not report about this dramatic event even on their crime pages … shows it is a political kidnapping, yet more violence, yet another revenge against political foes."

If he had no part in the apparent abduction, Mr. Milosevic and the Serbian authorities should not only condemn it but send a search team for the 64-year-old former politician. If it does turn out to be an orchestrated kidnapping by Milosevic supporters, the dictator has done himself no favors. The opposition will be more determined than ever to get rid of him, although it wouldn't be easy to oust a man who campaigns with white vans as readily as he does with balloons and speeches. The Gore and Bush campaigns should be developing a strategy now to deal with Mr. Milosevic should he once again force the election results in his favor.

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