- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia With polls showing President Vojislav Kostunica's reform coalition as overwhelming favorites in tomorrow's parliamentary election, party organizers are waging a last-minute drive against complacency that could dampen the turnout and cut into their victory.

Officials of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), buoyed by as much as 79 percent support in some polls, say they need a strong majority in parliament to complete the revolution that began with the electoral defeat of President Slobodan Milosevic on Sept. 24.

That concern is reflected in the advertising slogans used by DOS and their supporters, such as "No time to relax," "Until the end," and "Use your brain."

One slogan used by the student activist group Otpor says "Overi," which literally means "Certify It," but also echoes gangster slang meaning, "Put the last bullet in his head."

The surprising dominance of the DOS has made this campaign much less dramatic than the election that toppled Mr. Milosevic. The pro-reform alliance is "feeling invincible electorally," said one Western diplomat who added, "I don't see a whole lot of energy devoted to campaigning."

But DOS officials say the stakes are extremely high. So far, the reformers control only the federal Yugoslav government, which has power over foreign policy and the military. They need control of the state Serbian government to begin the process of privatizing state-owned businesses, abolishing repressive media laws and reforming the justice system.

"You can't control Yugoslavia without controlling Serbia," said Belgrade political analyst Bratislav Grubacic.

Despite its popularity, two issues dog the DOS campaign economic decline and unrest on the Kosovo border.

More than half of Serbs think the quality of life has deteriorated in the last two months, according to research by the polling agency Argument. There have been repeated power shortages this winter and the removal of subsidies has driven up prices.

The DOS's opponents have tried to use the issue. The nationalist Serbian Radical Party, a coalition partner in the Milosevic government, is running commercials showing scenes of poverty and suggesting that things were better under the former president.

"People live harder than before, prices are very high," said Goran Matic, a former Yugoslav minister of information and senior official in a minor party headed by Mr. Milosevic's wife.

The new leaders also have been stymied by violence in the Presovo Valley, an area bordering Kosovo that is populated mainly by ethnic Albanians.

Guerrillas last month killed four Serbian police officers in a 3-mile-wide security zone set up last year at the end of the NATO air campaign. The ethnic Albanian rebels now hold several villages in the zone, which the Yugoslav military is forbidden to enter.

Belgrade newspapers report new incidents in the region almost daily, and it widely is believed that the rebels plan a major offensive soon.

The rebels are known as the Liberation Army of Presovo, Medvedja and Bujanovac and want the valley to become part of Kosovo, which they hope someday will be an independent state.

DOS opponents are trying to paint the new government as too weak to secure the country's borders against terrorism.

"We have a very dangerous situation on our borders," Mr. Matic said. "The situation in Presovo is due to the program of DOS," which he said was soft on separatists.

Last week, several hundred people blocked a major road in southern Serbia to protest the inability of the government to stamp out the rebellion. Belgrade media reported that the protest was organized by Mr. Milosevic's allies.

Mr. Kostunica's government has tried to deal with the crisis diplomatically, by sealing off the area and appealing to the international authorities who run Kosovo to do a better job on their side of the border.

"Milosevic would have sent 100 tanks, run over everyone in the valley and thus 'solved' the problem. Kostunica engaged in diplomatic initiatives knowing that it would hurt him at home," said Otpor co-founder Jovan Radkovic.

"People like a strong leader who is going to defend the territory of Yugoslavia."

The government is trying to dampen the political fallout from its approach. The Serbian and Yugoslav governments held a joint meeting in the southern Serbian city of Bujanovac to address the issue.

"There is no room here for party campaigning, and there must be no attempts to score political points to the detriment of the people," Nebojsa Covic, deputy prime minister of Serbia and a member of DOS, told a TV station in nearby Vranje.

Mr. Covic said Yugoslav forces could crush the rebellion in a day, but that would mean a return "to what we already had blockades, sanctions, even, God forbid, an aggression like the one we have already witnessed."

Tomorrow's election could be the high-water mark for the DOS, a coalition of 18 parties that came together with little in common except a desire to defeat Mr. Milosevic.

Once that undertaking is completed tomorrow, many observers feel that the coalition will begin to break up. DOS officials insist they will stay together, but the media already are speculating on disputes among coalition leaders and on which of the parties will be dominant.

Still, democracy seems to have taken root for good, said Mr. Grubacic, the Belgrade political analyst. The parties in DOS have pledged to support the new Serbian government even if they split up, and that should allow the crucial reforms to be passed.

"Once you have established the framework of a normal state, it doesn't matter who is in power, like in every other normal country," Mr. Grubacic said.

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