Int. Herald Tribune
YU election is a booby trap for the West

David Russell-Johnston

Paris, Monday, September 18, 2000


STRASBOURG - VojisIav Kostunica is fighting an uphill battle to oust President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia. He would almost certainly win a free and fair ballot, even if Mr. Milosevic still enjoys considerable support. But the elections will be neither free nor fair. That much is already clear.

The electoral laws are seriously flawed and have been designed to facilitate fraud. There will be no proper international observation.

Two essential conditions for free and fair elections, freedom of media and freedom of association, are simply not met. Last week the country's electoral commission ordered what is left of the independent media to stop distributing what they described as "political propaganda for the opposition."

The latter is constantly harassed, its campaign rallies banned, its grass-roots activists arrested and beaten. Mr. Milosevic's immense propaganda machine is portraying his political opponents as traitors and fascists. Ludicrous tales of their alleged plots with the NATO aggressor are revealed daily, to fuel the collective paranoia and prepare the terrain for future, more radical measures against the opposition. If, against all odds, it happens to win.

Mr. Milosevic will not be playing fair. He never did, at least not voluntarily. We should not dupe ourselves into believing that he could be coerced into conceding defeat as he had been after the municipal elections in 1996. Not after Kosovo and his indictment for war crimes. He has little to win and everything to lose from accepting defeat.

Or does he really?

The law on presidential elections in Yugoslavia, freshly produced for the purposes of these very elections, stipulates that the president may leave his office before the expiration of the term for which he was elected only in three precise cases: death, dismissal or resignation. The election of his successor is not included.

Hence, even in the unlikely event of Mr. Kostunica's victory being accepted by the regime, and provided that none of the three situations envisaged by the law occurs - which is a rather safe bet - Mr. Milosevic would stay firmly in the saddle until his original term comes to the end, in July 2001. Long after the crucial Serbian elections next spring. Plenty of time for all sorts of mischief.

If Mr. Kostunica wins, in the first round of voting Sept. 24 or in a second-round runoff Oct. 8, Mr. Milosevic could see out his term while Belgrade demands that the international community put its money where its mouth has been. Yugoslavia has been promised plenty in return for a free and fair vote, and what better evidence of freedom and fairness can there be than the triumph of an opposition candidate?

This would present us with a considerable dilemma, to which I personally have no answer.

We could deliver: the lifting of sanctions, economic aid, political dialogue, the whole lot. But with an indicted war criminal still in office, who would be allowed to take credit for it.

We could refuse. In this case Belgrade, but also others, Moscow included, would protest against what they would see as double standards, hypocrisy and the breach of the word that had been given. Mr. Milosevic would be given an opportunity to portrait himself as a democrat wronged, through which he could offset most of the risk stemming from his electoral defeat.

Mr. Kostunica himself would be in dire straits. He would be president-elect, but this is a dubious honor in a country where things may happen to you every day, politically or otherwise. And nine months is a long time to wait, particularly for a post which, if occupied by any other person than Mr. Milosevic, yields little power.

Mr. Kostunica could lean to the West. But in this, he would have little to offer, even less to gain and much to lose. His campaign ticket is, even if moderately, distinctively nationalist and anti-NATO. Changing the course would be political suicide.

He could, of course, lean the other way.

All this is largely hypothetical. The most likely outcome is still a fraudulent victory for Mr. Milosevic. It is not in his character to lose. But he did cover all eventualities.

When Tito died in 1980, the slogan "There will be Tito after Tito" was created to comfort the bereaved population. What was a propagandist platitude 20 years ago may become a harsh political reality today: Regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming ballot, there will be Milosevic after Milosevic.

Lord Russell-Johnston is president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.



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