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Yugoslavia: Serbia Prepares To Choose First President Of Post-Milosevic Era

Serbia heads to the polls on 29 September in the first presidential elections since Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from the Yugoslav top job in 2000. Eleven candidates are running, but the poll is expected to be a tight race between two former allies in the movement that toppled Milosevic -- Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Miroljub Labus, the Yugoslav deputy prime minister.

Prague, 27 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Eleven candidates -- including a communist-era film actor, a former army chief of staff, and a sculpture professor -- are vying for the Serbian presidency in the election.

But the main contest is expected to be between two former allies in the movement that ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from power two years ago -- Milosevic's successor, Kostunica, and Labus.

Polls indicate it will be a tight race, with Kostunica currently enjoying a slight lead. But neither candidate looks likely to secure the 50 percent required to win outright, suggesting it will go to a second-round runoff in two weeks' time.

On one level, the election appears to be about the pace at which voters want to see economic reforms pursued. Serbia remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, and unofficial statistics put the unemployment rate at between 25 and 30 percent.

In the last two years, Labus, a law professor, has helped negotiate much-needed debt relief and fresh credits for Yugoslavia from international financial institutions.

He says he wants Serbia to join the European Union by 2010. And he's keen to push ahead with rapid privatization, which he believes will bring economic benefits in the long run through foreign investment -- but which could cause even more pain and social upheaval in the short term: "We will do everything to break down frontiers and to make all of us part of one unified Europe. We are going to work and compete with others, and I think we can do that."

Kostunica, by contrast, appears more cautious on the pace of reforms, saying the people of Serbia have suffered much already. It's an issue he highlighted last night in Kragujevac, a manufacturing city in central Serbia: "Who can explain such a high rate of unemployment as this? The government has failed to create a social program, they should be ashamed."

Kostunica also accuses Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's government of corruption and abuse of power -- an issue that has become the other major focus of the election.

The open rivalry between the two leaders began in 2001 after Djindjic angered Kostunica by allowing the government to extradite Milosevic to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Though Labus is running as an independent, he has long been a member of Djindjic's Democratic Party and enjoys the prime minister's backing.

Kostunica's message is clear -- if he wins, he wants early parliamentary elections and a new government. If Labus wins, it should be easier for Djindjic's coalition to hang on to power.

Yugoslavia and its constituent parts currently have three presidential posts -- one at the federal level and one each for the republics of Serbia and Montenegro.

It's not entirely clear what will happen to the federal position later this year, when Yugoslavia is abolished to make way for a looser union between Serbia and Montenegro. But the post is likely to enjoy fewer powers than at present.

This in turn means a probable increase in the influence of the Serbian presidency. And it could receive a further boost if, as expected, the outgoing Serbian president, Milan Milutinovic, joins Milosevic in The Hague to face charges of war crimes in Kosovo.

The third main contender in the election is the hard-line nationalist Vojislav Seselj, who has the backing of Milosevic and is expected to take around 13 percent of the vote. That wouldn't be enough to win, but it would be sufficient to force a runoff between Kostunica and Djindjic. In a second round, many of Seselj's supporters are likely to back Kostunica.

Seselj appeared to be gaining popularity toward the end of his campaign, which he wound up in typically outspoken style in Belgrade on 26 September: "My key political aim, if elected, is to oust the mafia government led by Mr. Djindjic. This government is traitorous and I will call early parliamentary elections."

For security reasons, candidates have not been allowed to campaign in Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian-dominated province of Serbia under UN administration. But nearly 300 of the 8,600 polling stations are in the province, allowing voters in Kosovo's Serb-majority areas to cast their ballots in the 29 September election.

Polling starts at 7:00 a.m. Belgrade time and closes at 8:00 p.m.

(Dragan Stavljanin and Srdjan Kusovac of RFE/RL's South Slavic Service contributed to this report.)