- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic conceded that his challenger finished first in the country's presidential election but declared a runoff defying demands at home and abroad that he step down.
Opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica rejected an Oct. 8 runoff, calling it a "fraud" and insisting that he won Sunday's election outright. At the same time, he warned against any moves that could raise tensions and called on the opposition to keep to a "nonviolent" response.
The opposition called for a rally tonight in downtown Belgrade to "celebrate its victory" apparently hoping for a show of strength to demonstrate to Mr. Milosevic the public's refusal of a runoff.
President Clinton said it was clear the opposition had defeated the Yugoslav leader, who has been at the helm of the south Slav nation for 13 years. He said that the United States would take steps to lift economic sanctions if the election result is honored.
"Despite the government's attempts to manipulate the vote, it does seem clear that the people have voted for change," Mr. Clinton said in a speech at Georgetown University.
The announcement of a runoff raises the stakes in the confrontation between Mr. Milosevic and the opposition, which faced the choice of accepting a runoff it considers fraudulent or trying to pressure the hard-line leader believed to have a firm grip on the top ranks of the police and military to back down.
Two days after the voting, the State Elections Commission released its first results yesterday, showing Mr. Kostunica finishing first with 48.22 percent to 40.23 percent for Mr. Milosevic. The law provided a runoff Oct. 8 if none of the five candidates received more than 50 percent of the votes cast.
Before the announcement, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia released its own tally, showing Mr. Kostunica with 55 percent to Mr. Milosevic's 35 percent.
It said the figures were based on 97.5 percent of the ballots and were taken from reports by opposition poll watchers at each precinct.
State television said the turnout was 64 percent, far below the 74 percent figure given by the opposition.
"We are talking about political fraud and blatant stealing of votes," Mr. Kostunica said. "This is an offer which must be rejected."
But he said the opposition would avoid "careless moves which could raise tensions in society, which could lead to unforeseeable consequences."
"The truth is obvious, and we will defend it by all nonviolent means," the opposition leader said. "The people have given their political 'no' to Milosevic and his policies."
Tens of thousands of Yugoslavs jammed the main squares in Belgrade and other major cities for two straight nights after the balloting, celebrating the opposition win and demanding Mr. Milosevic step down. Both nights, the rallies ended without friction with police, and last night there were no crowds in the streets.
"For us, there is no runoff," Vladan Batic, an anti-Milosevic activist, said. "We won honestly and those who falsified the results have to face criminal charges.
Zoran Djindjic, another opposition leader, demanded the electoral commission inspect the official returns, saying the government had removed 400,000 votes from Mr. Kostunica and given half of them to Mr. Milosevic.
"We were aware of their intentions because it was obvious they were cooking up something to get Milosevic in the second round at least," Mr. Djindjic said. "But we have firm evidence in our hands, and we will defend the will of the people till the end."
The influential leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, met with Mr. Kostunica yesterday and urged the ruling coalition "to accept the electoral will of the people and contribute to the welfare of the nation and the state."
The runoff announcement came despite growing international calls for Mr. Milosevic to accept an opposition victory.
In Washington, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said the United States would not stand by and watch Mr. Milosevic steal the election.
"I think the international community will look very closely, carefully and bring whatever pressure it can for Milosevic to abide by the will of his people," Mr. Cohen said. "The people want Milosevic out. Certainly, the international community would welcome that result."
Mr. Clinton held out to Yugoslavia the prospect of the end of the country's isolation. "If the will of the people is respected, the doors to Europe and the world will be open again to Serbia," Mr. Clinton said. "We will take steps with our allies to lift economic sanctions, and the people of Serbia, who have suffered so much finally will have a chance to lead normal lives."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "I say to Milosevic: You lost. Go. Your country and the world has suffered enough."
Just 150 miles northwest of Yugoslavia's pro-Western republic of Montenegro, U.S. and Croatian forces held naval exercises yesterday, including a simulated Marine landing on an island in the Adriatic Sea. It was part of their largest joint exercise to date.
Capt. William Crow, commander of the USS Austin, said the exercise was planned months ago.

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