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1997 In Review: Yugoslavia's Milosevic Faces Challenges

Prague, 8 December 1997 (RFE/RL) - Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic's candidate Milan Milutinovic holds a comfortable lead in initial returns in the Serbian presidential elections held on December 7. Problems are far from over, however, for the wily Yugoslav leader.

Serbian voters went to the polls to elect a president for the third time in as many months. The first round held on September 21 failed to yield a clear winner, while the subsequent runoff on October 5 was invalid because less than 50 percent of the electorate turned out.

The entire campaign was, moreover, characterized by two trends. The first was voter apathy, which drew on the popular feeling that no change of government could quickly rescue Serbia from crime, poverty, and corruption.

The second development was that some ethnic minorities -- most notably the Kosovar Albanians -- and most opposition parties boycotted the electoral process. The Albanians charged that none of the candidates took a stand on Kosovo that the Albanians could support. The opposition, led by Zoran Djindjic and Vesna Pesic, argued that conditions for a free and fair vote did not obtain.

The result was that the sole major opposition candidate, the Serbian Renewal Movement's Vuk Draskovic, finished third in the September and December ballots. The main issue, however, was whether Milosevic's candidate -- Zoran Lilic in the first two rounds, Milutinovic in the third -- would defeat the ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj of the Serbian Radical Party.

Seselj led paramilitary groups in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts. He supports "ethnic cleansing" and rejects the Dayton peace treaty. Former U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman calls Seselj "a fascist" in his memoirs, and many human rights activists have demanded that Seselj be indicted for war crimes.

Seselj, nonetheless, led Lilic in the October vote. Fearful that Seselj might defeat Milutinovic and win the presidency outright on December 7, Milosevic cranked up his powerful propaganda machine to discredit Seselj. Milutinovic's campaign, for its part, stressed his experience as Yugoslav foreign minister, even if he has few successes to show.

The contest, however, has not been decided. Latest figures give Milutinovic about 1.6-million votes to Seselj's 1.2-million. Some estimates put voter turnout at 52 percent, but it is still not certain that the key 50 percent figure was indeed reached to make the ballot valid. If a runoff takes place December 21, or, if the whole process has to be repeated for a third time, there is still a chance that Seselj could emerge as Serbia's next president.

That, however, may not be likely. Seselj has frequently charged that he has been the victim of electoral fraud. It should also be recalled that Milosevic and Seselj are both skilled politicians, who have made use of each other in the past. It is not to be excluded that they might make yet another deal if electoral deadlock continues.

Meanwhile, Milosevic can continue to dominate the Belgrade power scene. He has, however, at least three additional problems that could try even his well-honed political skills.

The first is the power struggle among the Bosnian Serbs. This confrontation pits hard-liner Radovan Karadzic against Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic, who pays at least lip-service to the Dayton agreements. Milosevic signed Dayton on behalf of the Serbs and, like Plavsic, hopes to use his formal acceptance of the treaty in order to end his international isolation. But Milosevic and Plavsic have been openly declared enemies for years. And the mafia-like networks that underlie the Milosevic power structure, moreover, are closely interlocked with those supporting Karadzic. So far, it is not clear which side Milosevic's allies will support in the newly elected Bosnian Serb legislature.

The second issue is Montenegro and its relationship with Belgrade and the Yugoslav federation. This year has seen the rise to power in the mountainous republic of a reform-minded leadership under President-elect Milo Djukanovic, who wants home rule. Djukanovic and the reformers argue that Milosevic's continuing international isolation is crippling the Montenegrin economy, which traditionally relies on tourism and shipping to earn hard currency. Djukanovic handily defeated Milosevic's ally Momir Bulatovic in the 19 October presidential vote.

Last but not least is Milosevic's hardy perennial, Kosovo. He has kept the restive mainly ethnic Albanian province under tight police control since he abolished its autonomy in 1989. The moderate Albanian leadership under shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova, meanwhile, continues to advocate non-violence and seeks to attract foreign support. Adem Demaci of the Parliamentary Party and some other politicians, however, argue that Rugova's tactics have gotten nowhere. They recently set up the Democratic Forum to explore alternative solutions.

Meanwhile, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) continues to direct violence against Serbian officials, police, and ethnic Albanians it considers collaborators. The UCK has become increasingly bold in its tactics, and some of its members recently appeared for the first time in public. In the last analysis, it is possible that the Bosnian Serbs, the Montenegrins, or the Kosovars could present Milosevic with a far stiffer challenge than Seselj ever could.