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Yugoslavia: Two Sides Harden In Serbian Political Impasse

A political stalemate appears to be developing in Belgrade as presidential rivals Slobodan Milosevic and Vojislav Kostunica engage in a battle of wits and patience over the fate of Yugoslavia. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports.

Prague, 3 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An opposition-led general strike is now in its second day across Serbia to protest election manipulation and the scheduling of a second round of presidential elections for Sunday (Oct 8). But after yesterday's noisy start with massive traffic jams, today's disruptions were considerably fewer.

In an unusual turn, Milosevic has deployed his army chief of staff and war hero from last year's Kosovo campaign, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, to negotiate with striking miners. Pavkovic, who is outspokenly pro-Milosevic, met with the president just hours after polls closed nine days ago in an apparent sign of loyalty. Local news media say 7,500 striking miners, protesting the Milosevic government, have refused Pavkovic's order to return to work. Pavkovic has threatened them with compulsory work orders if they disobey.

Kolubara supplies fuel to Serbia's biggest coal-fired power plant, Obrenovac. The state today responded to the strike by instituting power cuts in several cities, including Nis, Novi Sad, Cacak, Uzice and Kraljevo, as well as in some suburbs of Belgrade.

The general strike comes amid a Moscow initiative to mediate between Milosevic and Kostunica. The chairman of the Russian State Duma committee for international affairs, Dmitry Rogozin, met today with Milosevic's brother, Borislav, the Yugoslav ambassador to Russia. Rogozin said afterward he does not expect an answer before tomorrow. The ambassador says no decision has been made.

Rogozin was also due to speak by telephone today with Kostunica. He told reporters in Moscow a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin could come as soon as Thursday when the Russian president returns from India.

"The aim is to avoid bloodshed and civil strife in Yugoslavia because here is what could happen: Kostunica says he won't go for a second round, he considers himself to have already been elected president with 54 percent of the vote. The result is that Milosevic remains alone, without an alternative, and he is also president, and both are starting to behave as if they were president. This could lead to direct civil strife. The alternative is that they reach a compromise before the second round: either one of them gives up his claim or they decide to both head for a second round. This is an option, in principle, but there needs to be a third party for this to work, a guarantor. Today. Russia has the opportunity to play that part."

The Russian news agency Interfax, quoting unnamed sources close to Kostunica, said Kostunica would accept Putin's invitation. ITAR-TASS, quoting the Russian ambassador to Yugoslavia, Valery Yegoshkin, says the opposition Democratic Party of Serbia has called on Russia to provide an official invitation to Kostunica.

Kostunica at a news conference yesterday expressed exasperation with both Washington and Moscow. "America -- in more than one statement by the State Department -- has not missed an opportunity to mention The Hague [war crimes indictment against Milosevic] as if that were more important than the fate of one nation. Russia, on the other hand, takes one step forward, then one step back, but never makes any progress."

The Hague tribunal last year issued an indictment against Milosevic for his part in the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Kostunica and Serbian opposition leaders have repeatedly stated that the indictment, which angers many Serbs, is not an issue. Their aim, they say, is to unseat Milosevic.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, at a meeting in Paris yesterday said they have serious reservations about Russia's proposal to broker a deal.

Albright said the Russian initiative was only good if it entailed telling Milosevic he has to withdraw and telling Kostunica that Russia recognizes his victory. Albright again stressed that Milosevic is a war criminal who, she said, belongs in The Hague.

It's not clear whether all international sanctions would lifted simultaneously if Kostunica were to gain power. The EU probably would lift sanctions quickly, but leading U.S. officials have sent mixed signals.

Yesterday a U.S. White House spokesman (Jake Siewart) said the sanctions would be reviewed but a decision to lift them would be balanced against actions taken to bring Milosevic to justice.

Kostunica, for his part, continues to insist that accepting Milosevic's demand for a second round of presidential elections would be illegal. The opposition has claimed outright victory in the original vote -- while the state electoral commission concedes Milosevic lost -- but says Kostunica did win the more than 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a run-off.

Kostunica says: "The opposition cannot take part in a second round because that would be tantamount to accepting election theft. Why not then have a second, third and fourth round all based on the first stealing of the elections?"

Milosevic meanwhile has gone a verbal offensive, accusing Kostunica of being NATO's candidate.

"By having authorities who would be installed by the community of countries gathered in the NATO pact, Yugoslavia would inevitably become a country whose territory would soon disintegrate. These are not only the intentions of the NATO pact, these are the election promises of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia."

He says the opposition, if in power, would grant the heavily Muslim Sandzak region what he termed "autonomy." He says that would take Sandzak out of Serbia. And, Milosevic adds, any plan to grant autonomy to the northern province of Vojvodina would make it an integral part of neighboring Hungary. Milosevic withdrew Vojvodina's autonomy a decade ago.

Milosevic also says Kosovo would be the first casualty. He says its current status as an international protectorate would be declared legal and definite.

If Kostunica is declared president, Milosevic contends, the republic of Montenegro -- which together with Serbia makes up federal Yugoslavia -- would be handed over to what he calls the Mafia. This an apparent allusion to Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who is alleged to have engaged in smuggling in the 1990s.

Social Democratic opposition leader Zarko Korac says the alarmist nature of Milosevic's comments means he is on the "defensive."