The Serbian opposition says it won a big victory in yesterday's presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. But Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is also claiming victory. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that a renewed sense of optimism has emerged following the vote, but concern over Milosevic's next move is uppermost in the minds of participants and observers.
Prague, 25 September 2000 (RFE/RL) - The frontrunner in yesterday's Yugoslav presidential elections, Vojislav Kostunica, told reporters today a new dawn is rising in Serbia, the dawn of freedom:
"[It was] a big victory for Serbia, Yugoslavia and our nation."
Kostunica says it was his enormous love for the country and its people that kept him going through the grueling campaign and led the united opposition to victory:
"According to our data, victory in the first round of presidential elections is certain."
Earlier, Deputy Federal Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, who like Milosevic faces a war crimes indictment from the UN's Hague tribunal, said Milosevic was leading by 3 percentage points in the vote count. But Kostunica says Sainovic is wrong.
"The information is the other way around from what Sainovic says. Any way you look at it, this constitutes victory. Slobodan Milosevic is no longer a sacrosanct leader and I am convinced that this is the most important thing at the moment."
Kostunica told the crowd the time has come to reorganize the state and to "secure and determine the boundaries" -- a clear reference to the future status of Kosovo and Montenegro. He says the country must regain its dignity. He warned, however, there should be no premature rejoicing or revenge, and called on everyone to work together regardless of who voted for whom.
Opposition leader and Kostunica supporter Zoran Djindjic said today: "We have a message for Mr. Milosevic -- he should take the judgement of history seriously. He should not gamble or try to remain on the scene, although it is clear that the people do not want him -- it is really the end of his political career."
Concern remains that Milosevic might still try to use force to retain power. Former President Milan Panic, a Serbian-American businessman, warned in an RFE/RL interview last night against the use of force.
"Never in history have the police defended a regime from the people. In the end, all police and militia who have turned on the nation were condemned as criminals by the people."
Even the Party of the Yugoslav Left, or JUL, led by Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, has virtually conceded defeat, declaring this morning that the opposition obtained the majority of votes in the municipal elections, and that JUL's joint list with Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia was practically defeated in the federal elections.
She said nevertheless JUL and SPS would maintain their majority in parliament.
That is unlikely since the third member of the ruling coalition, Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party, has pulled out of the coalition, possibly to be replaced by Vuk Draskovic's weakened Serbian Renewal Movement. Seselj has said in the event of a run-off presidential election he will not back Milosevic.
No official results have yet been released. The pro-opposition tabloid Blic reported today Kostunica won 58 percent of the vote, while Milosevic won only 33 percent and that voter-turnout in Serbia was an unusually high 78 percent.
In municipal elections, the opposition held all the municipalities they won four years ago and gained new ground in localities previously controlled by Milosevic.
Other estimates suggest a closer presidential race, but only Milosevic supporters are claiming the incumbent is leading.
Meanwhile, confusion reigns over the fate of Prime Minister and Milosevic supporter Momir Bulatovic. Milosevic was reported to have been angry with Bulatovic last week when he was only able to produce a crowd of 15,000 at a rally at a military base in Berane, Montenegro -- Milosevic's only campaign stop in the republic. Montenegrin news media and the Serbian news agency Beta reported today Bulatovic resigned or offered to resign after being asked by Milosevic to come up with an additional 100,000 votes. But a Bulatovic aide denied the report.
Last night, Bulatovic reiterated Milosevic's mandate as president will continue until July, regardless of the outcome.
The majority of Montenegrin voters boycotted the poll at the urging of the pro-Western government of President Milo Djukanovic. Voter turnout in Montenegro was under 25 percent. Montenegro's state prosecutor Bozidar Vukcevic says there were numerous "serious irregularities," adding that his office will investigate and bring to court every violation of the election law.
International reaction to the outcome was swift. In Paris, the European Union issued a statement saying "any attempt by Milosevic to declare himself the victor would be fraudulent."
In Vienna, the chairperson-in-office of the OSCE, Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, called on the Yugoslav federal government "to recognize the overriding will of the people to embrace democracy and rejoin Europe."
"Claims of victory by pro-Milosevic forces are, in my eyes, not credible. These elections were far from being democratic. But despite reports of widespread fraud and intimidation, the will of the people, for a change, has been overwhelming."
And in London, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said all reliable evidence suggests a massive majority voted against Milosevic.
"Today, Milosevic is a beaten, broken-backed president. We know he was preparing to rig the results. But the scale of his defeat is too great for even him to fix it. My message to him today is be honest with your people. Don't cheat them. Get out of the way and let Serbia get out of the prison into which you have turned it."
Meanwhile, as concern mounts that Milosevic may try to stage a crackdown in Montenegro, the largest number of NATO ships to assemble since air strikes against Yugoslavia last year has gathered off the Adriatic coast. These include the British aircraft carrier "Invincible." U.S. and Croat forces are scheduled to participate in an amphibious landing exercise within the next few days.