- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

''There is a great chance and hope that after the election we will begin a new life in a different Serbia," said opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica on Sept. 20, predicting that strongman Slobodan Milosevic's disastrous decade in power was coming to an end. "Gotov je" ("He's finished") exults the slogan of the popular student-led opposition movement Otpor.

But the demon king of the Balkans is not necessarily finished yet. Indeed, instead of quitting, he might even start another war.

Mr. Milosevic made a rare miscalculation last July when he called the current elections. He assumed the Serbian opposition parties would fall to bickering as usual and fail to come up with a single candidate, giving him an easy victory in the first round of voting for the Yugoslav presidency last Sunday. Instead, most of them managed to unite behind Mr. Kostunica, who promptly took a 2-to-1 lead over Mr. Milosevic in the opinion polls.

Mr. Kostunica is a former professor of constitutional law who, rarely for a Serbian political figure, has no hint of corruption or of collaboration with evil in his past. In the old days he refused to join the ruling Communist Party. More recently, he has been almost unique among mainstream opposition leaders in rejecting every effort by Mr. Milosevic to co-opt him. As his campaign slogan puts it: "Who can look you straight in the eyes? Kostunica."

In Serbian political terms, Mr. Kostunica is a moderate nationalist i.e., he says things like "The real U.S. goal is obviously a further breakup of Yugoslavia, and Milosevic's victory leads directly to it." Most foreign observers would only agree with the latter half of this statement, but it represents moderation and rationality in the paranoid world of Serbian politics. So millions of ordinary Serbs have seized on Mr. Kostunica as their one way out of the dead-end where Mr. Milosevic has trapped them.

As Mr. Kostunica's lead widened, the regime's reaction became steadily more extreme. The last independent radio and television stations were shut down, opposition campaign offices were regularly raided, and hundreds of activists were harassed or arrested.

A televised absentee show trial of NATO's leaders for "war crimes" against the Serbian people filled the last week before Sunday's vote. And above all, Mr. Milosevic dropped increasingly heavy hints he would start a new war in Montenegro.

"When in trouble, start a war" has been Mr. Milosevic's main tactic for political survival for a long time, and it is the main reason Yugoslavia has shrunk from six republics and 20 million people when he took power in Serbia in 1989 to two republics and 8 million people now. And although tiny Montenegro (600,000 people) is identical to Serbia (8 million people) in language and religion, even the Montenegrins have begun to edge toward the exit door.

It is Mr. Milosevic's fault, for bringing them nothing but war, sanctions and poverty. But it is also Mr. Milosevic's opportunity.

If Mr. Milosevic's extensive vote-rigging measures do not give him a majority in the first round of voting in Yugoslavia, then many local observers expect him to launch a crisis in Montenegro attack the separatist government there and start a civil war, in effect in order to avoid a decisive defeat in the second round of voting two weeks later.

Even if Mr. Milosevic does manage to manufacture a first-round victory with the aid of a million or so "dead souls" who the opposition claims are being resurrected and put on the electoral register, a new crisis in the Balkans is quite likely. The Serbian opposition is promising to dispute a rigged result with massive demonstrations, and if those demos really threaten Mr. Milosevic's hold on power, he is quite likely to respond with the same tactic.

On the other hand, the track record of the Serbian opposition in this regard is pretty dismal. The massive demonstrations in Belgrade in the winter of 1996-97, after the last time that Mr. Milosevic rigged an election, gradually died out as the splits among a dozen egotistical opposition leaders grew wider and wider.

"This [election] victory is maybe more important psychologically than politically," said Vojislav Kostunica last week in a moment of cold realism. "It will change that fatalistic attitude among the people, that however badly things may go, it seems that Milosevic can never lose." Or maybe it won't change it, after all.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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