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Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has been the architect of his country’s destruction. Over the course of a decade, his twin pursuits of the Serb nationalist cause and his own power have torn the Yugoslav federation apart. It has been a bloody process, triggering foreign military intervention on two occasions. Today, Yugoslavia consists of just two of its former seven republics: Serbia and Montenegro. And Mr. Milosevic is once more prepared to divide what remains of Yugoslavia in two. He has jiggered the constitution to allow him to run for office again, alienating the Montenegrins and risking yet another conflagration.

According to the Yugoslav Constitution, the president can serve just one term. That inconveniences Mr. Milosevic, whose term expires next year. To fix that problem, the Parliament – which he controls – passed legislation last month that allows the president to serve more than one term and changes the way the president and parliamentary representatives are elected.

Two reforms are critical. First, the president is to be elected by a majority in a popular vote, regardless of turnout. That means a boycott of the election will have no effect. Second, members of the Upper House of Parliament will also be elected by popular vote. Currently, separate assemblies in Montenegro and Serbia each select 20 of the chamber’s 40 legislators. A direct vote cuts the link between each republic and the parliamentarians, which also increases Mr. Milosevic’s influence over the Parliament.

Blatant manipulation is not new to Mr. Milosevic. He previously served as president of the Serb Republic, and when he could no longer run for that office, he rewrote the constitution to put real power in the Yugoslav presidency, which had previously been a largely ceremonial post.

The moves have enraged Montenegrins and widened the gap between the two Yugoslav republics. The government in Montenegro has leaned steadily toward the West in recent years and fiercely protected its independence. Last year, it refused to recognize the state of war that Belgrade declared after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia in an attempt to force negotiations over Kosovo. Later, it defied Belgrade and refused to place its police under army command. It cut its economic dependence on Yugoslavia by declaring the German mark legal tender alongside the Yugoslav dinar. Yugoslavia then blockaded trade between the two republics.

The Montenegro government has rejected the new law and hinted that it might declare independence if Mr. Milosevic wins the vote. Then the dismemberment of Yugoslavia would be complete, but it is sure to be a messy process.

Presidential and parliamentary elections are now scheduled for Sept. 24. Mr. Milosevic is not unbeatable. His leadership has never been put to a democratic test, and there is considerable opposition to his rule. There is no reason to hope that the elections will be fair, however. The government has already begun to crack down on the opposition and the mass media. Prominent opposition figures have faced assassination attempts. There will be no international monitors.

Worse, the opposition is divided. The egos of the various leaders are perpetually in conflict, and there is no agreement on strategy. Most of the party heads are considered to be ineffectual or too close to the West, even by Yugoslavs who have no stomach for Mr. Milosevic’s hyper-nationalism. Yet, they are ready to contest the election – if the Montenegro government does not boycott the vote – and will try once again to present a united front against Mr. Milosevic.

There is little cause for optimism. Mr. Milosevic is said to fear a Ceausescu-type uprising if he loosens his grip on power. Repeated clashes with the West have done little to moderate his policies. Attempts to bring Montenegro’s police under his control have failed, but the republic’s access to the Mediterranean means that Mr. Milosevic cannot let it go without a fight.

The world must make it clear to the Yugoslav president that the international community will not acquiesce to his latest power grab. The opposition should unite to participate in the vote since the new electoral law renders a boycott ineffectual. The argument that it would deprive the regime of legitimacy has little weight, given Yugoslavia’s current status.

If the people of Yugoslavia have a real choice, they may take it. Genuine mass opposition to the government could inspire the real sources of Mr. Milosevic’s power – the military and the security apparatus – to rethink their support for him. It is an optimistic scenario, but it is not impossible. It is a slim reed, but the alternatives are worse.

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