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TURNING POINT IN THE BALKANS

The ominous delay in reporting initial vote tallies and the dubious announcement of a runoff election in Serbia ought not to obscure the reality of a turning point in that troubled nation's history: Slobodan Milosevic's iron grip over the countryside has slipped.

The only way he can stay in power is by stealing the election, a move transparent both to Serbs and to the international community. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters celebrated an initial vote that, by unofficial counts, confirmed opinion polls that showed Milosevic in deep trouble. European nations, as well as the United States, rejoiced at what appears to be a Milosevic loss. And Russia, his strongest ally, hasn't voiced any strong support.

In fact, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reported after a meeting in Moscow that Russian President Vladimir Putin told him, "It looks as though Serbs and Yugoslavs have decided in favor of democratic change."

The problem for Serbia is that Milosevic has few options, and retirement isn't among them. He faces an international warrant for war crimes, he tweaked the constitution to allow him to run again and give him the option of retaining power until next June even if he loses, and -- in the opinion of European election monitors -- did his best to intimidate voters and otherwise rig the election.

In the face of an apparent 55-35 win for law professor Vojislav Kostunica, Milosevic's initial silence was followed by grudging admission he might have to face a runoff election. The delay in announcing an official result was ominous, and the official claim that the Kostunica margin of victory was 48-38, thereby requiring a runoff, is outrageous. But this is what the world has come to expect from this tyrant.

He has, after all, brought ruin to his country. In 13 years in power, he fostered three ethnic wars. Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia all have broken away from what once was Yugoslavia, leaving only Serbia -- with an all-but-independent province of Kosovo -- and Montenegro. His economy is in chaos, and his people have endured bombing, misery and international isolation.

Even if he manages somehow to steal this election, his political foes within Serbia have established a viable opposition that will triumph in time. The election's extremely high turnout, 74 percent of 7.6 million voters, also is evidence that Serbs took advantage of a chance for change.

The United States has taken a solid step toward encouraging that change by offering to lift economic sanctions if Milosevic yields to the will of the people. That would help ease Serbian suffering and ease the country back into the world community; the sanctions now block international bank loans to the nation, impose an oil embargo and deny visas to Yugoslav officials.

Kostunica, a "moderate nationalist" who has pledged not to extradite Milosevic, is thus far refusing to participate in a second round, saying he won the first round outright. The best outcome for everyone -- except Milosevic -- would be for Kostunica to run and win the second round.

If conducted honestly, this exercise in democracy is good for Yugoslavia, especially now that Milosevic's political dominance has been shattered by the voters.

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