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Yugoslavia: U.S. Sees Elections As Boon And Burden

Yugoslavia is scheduled to hold presidential, parliamentary and local elections Sunday, in a contest widely seen as a referendum on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's rule. RFE/RL's correspondent Lisa McAdams reports on how the U.S. envisages the elections overall, most notably its benefits and burdens.

Washington, 22 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United States' special advisor on democracy in the Balkans says he expects the democratic opposition in Yugoslavia to emerge stronger and wiser after this Sunday's presidential, parliamentary, and local elections.

The vote is widely viewed as a referendum on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's rule. But James O'Brien, who serves as special advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, told a special briefing at the U.S. Institute for Peace (UIP) in Washington it will also prove the political mettle of the Yugoslav opposition.

O'Brien says the 18 opposition parties are now united to an extent many people saw as "impossible" even a few months ago -- with or without a "win" this weekend:

"The reason the opposition has done better over the last several months than most people expected is that it has gotten deeper and more united. The depth is what is especially important. For the first time, the opposition is not a set of small parties located in Belgrade and one or two other major cities, it is now an organization that reaches far into Serbian society."

The opposition's new-found strength, O'Brien says, is a real change from the past and one that may prove fruitful overall, if not now, in the near future.

"Democracy," O'Brien says, "is an ongoing process."

However, O'Brien says the opposition faces a formidable task in the near-term with bringing down the sitting regime, despite latest opinion polls putting Serbia's main opposition candidate -- Vojislav Kostunica -- in a double-digit lead over President Milosevic in the presidential race:

"Milosevic has already taken steps to see that the scales are tilted in his direction. He's done that by gerrymandering districts. He's cleaned the voter rolls so that they tend to have people he believes will be favorable to him. He's holding some voters in reserve, including those who are dead and no longer able to vote for themselves. In addition, there's a systematic campaign of intimidation and harassment against democratic activists and the independent media."

Put simply, O'Brien agrees with U.S. and international officials when he says the fundamental conditions for free and fair elections will not hold in Yugoslavia this weekend.

Still, he says the U.S. sees the democratic exercise as important, as is the choice voters face between moving toward Europe and the international community, or toward continued international isolation under Milosevic, who was indicted by the International criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on war crimes.

Beyond the potential for fraud, U.S. officials also are concerned about Milosevic's potential for provoking crisis, as a way of distracting people from the central issues before them. O'Brien says one place in which the U.S. is particularly concerned this could happen is Montenegro where, O'Brien says, the U.S. believes Milosevic has a "gleam in his eye" about taking out the pro-western government of Milo Djukanovic.

Djukanovic's government has refused to take part in Yugoslavia's weekend elections, despite appeals from democratic opposition parties in Serbia, as well as the United States. Earlier this week, Milosevic lashed out at the West, Montenegro's leadership and Serbia's opposition, calling them "rats and hyenas" under the whim of a foreign master. Some have said this vitriolic talk highlights Milosevic's growing concern about the election.

At the same time, it is interesting to note somewhat separately that some even in the opposition had earlier expressed concerns about Kostunica and what they characterized as his deeply felt nationalism.

RFE/RL asked Thomas Carothers, vice president for global policy studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington to address that issue. Carothers said he thought the U.S. could comfortably support a Kostunica candidacy in at least one regard:

"In a sense, he's the best candidate the opposition can have. What Milosevic is trying to do is run against Bill Clinton and NATO and he's got a candidate in the opposition who didn't support the NATO intervention in Kosovo so he can't actually run against his opponent, but the phantom of Bill Clinton and NATO. And his opponent can run against Milosevic. That's what is making it so hard for Milosevic."

Carothers also was asked about the Belgrade government's claim that the United States is interfering in Yugoslavia's internal affairs by way of its support for the opposition. Carothers said the U.S. has a long history of getting involved in foreign elections and, in some cases, to a significant degree:

"We did so in the late 1980's when (Augusto) Pinochet had a referendum on his rule. The United States supported the opposition to Pinochet and has done so in a number of other elections, especially in post communist countries in the early 1990's like Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria and elsewhere. What the United States is trying to do here is to level the playing field and give the opposition a chance to take part in this election. It is American intervention in the election, but it is on the basis of a principle."

That principle, according to U.S. special Balkan advisor O'Brien, is that the People of Yugoslavia have as much right to democracy as anyone else in the world.