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Yugoslavia: Tension Builds As Elections Near

  • Jolyon Naegele

Yugoslavia holds presidential, parliamentary and local elections on 24 September in a contest that observers predict will result in both sides claiming victory. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports the West is of two minds on the wisdom of openly taking sides in the campaign.

Prague, 19 Sept 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic today predicted that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will declare victory regardless of the outcome of Sunday's elections.

Similarly, Montenegro's Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic said yesterday he believes Milosevic will not concede the election if he loses. He added that Milosevic "will do everything to stay in power."

The Yugoslav army chief of staff, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, declared his support for Milosevic over the weekend. He called the Yugoslav president a "courageous visionary" and declaring that his troops would prevent any "forcible power-grabbing" in the streets.

For his part, Milosevic has made only two campaign appearances so far. He told a bussed-in audience of some 10,000 at the Djerdap hydropower station that his opponents were "foreign traitors."

Milosevic is due to visit Montenegro tomorrow to speak at a rally in Berane, a Yugoslav army garrison town close to the boundaries with Kosovo and Serbia.

Meanwhile, the Belgrade regime is continuing its efforts to silence the opposition. It has harassed candidates, detained activists of the opposition youth movement Otpor and muffled the news media. The election commission last week ordered independent media to cease disseminating what it termed opposition "political propaganda."

The regime daily Politika yesterday denounced the front runner in the presidential elections, Vojislav Kostunica. The paper accused him of, among other things, cheating on his wife by having affairs with young girls and of keeping 17 cats in their apartment.

Kostunica responded that the regime's campaign against his Democratic Opposition of Serbia party "has been the dirtiest and most irregular one so far." He said: "our reply to the speech of hatred will be the speech of truth."

Kostunica says the opposition has decided to disregard "all irregularities and lies of the regime." But he adds: "We have set a firm line that understands recognition of the real election results."

With less than a week to go before the elections, European Union foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels yesterday, promised to lift sanctions against Yugoslavia if voters oust Milosevic. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine read out the minister's statement.

"On 24 September , the people of Serbia will be faced with a crucial political choice. Whatever the circumstances under which they have been decided and organized, the elections give the Serbian people the possibility of repudiating clearly and peacefully Milosevic's policies, which consist of political manipulation, the deprivation of freedom, impoverishment."

But former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter tells RFE/RL that even in the event of a partial lifting of sanctions, "the last people to benefit from that would be the average Serb." Hunter says that in addition to what Milosevic may do to swing the election next Sunday, Montenegro is his biggest worry. He says Western "contingency planning and preparations are the only things that could influence Milosevic," adding that the Yugoslav leader "knows the difference between resolve and pretense." Hunter made the remarks in a digital video link-up between Washington and RFE/RL in Prague.

"As a former ambassador to NATO, I believe that now is the time when the nations of the West need to be making clear to Milosevic that we would have a strong response, that NATO needs to be getting on with its contingency planning and that in fact we need to be preparing our people for the possibility -- nobody wants it -- that we might have to contemplate very serious actions, including military actions, if Milosevic were to attempt to do in Montenegro something similar to what he did in Bosnia and in Kosovo."

Hunter is critical of the Montenegrin government for boycotting the election, calling the move a "mistake" and a "serious miscalculation for the future of democracy in that country." In Hunter's words, "it is rarely useful for the forces of democracy, the forces of freedom, the people who really care about their country, to boycott an election because -- including in this case -- that is going to play right into the hands of Milosevic." Rather, he says, "everyone in the Yugoslav Federation who has a chance to take part in politics should do it in own self- interest."

Montenegro's anti-Milosevic President Djukanovic today defended his election boycott on the grounds that the elections are a farce and Milosevic is what he called a "genuine dictator." But Djukanovic insists that no matter who wins on Sunday, Montenegro will continue its pro-Western orientation.

Hunter is currently an advisor to U.S. Vice President and Democratic Party presidential candidate Al Gore. He says any attempt by Milosevic to take advantage of the U.S. election campaign would be a miscalculation.

"Let me tell you, that would be a colossal mistake. I have no doubt that if Milosevic did something in Montenegro, the United States government would take decisive action along with the NATO allies and that this would be strongly supported by all the presidential candidates, particularly Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush."

Hunter says one of the key things the West must do is to get more information into Serbia to enable Serbs to find out what is happening, to understand -- as he puts it -- "that Milosevic is the problem, not the West." Hunter says the U.S. does not have the standing to do that, and suggests that the new democracies in central Europe are in a much better position to get that message across to the Serbs.