LONDON — “We are talking about political fraud and blatant stealing of votes,” said Yugoslav opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica Sept. 26, after it was announced that he had not defeated Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday. “The victory is obvious and will be defended by all nonviolent means.”

The victory was obvious. Even Milosevic’s own tame State Election Commission admitted that Milosevic had got only 42 percent of the vote compared to Kostunica’s 48 percent. But since that still fell short of the 50 percent mark, the electoral commission said, there would have to be a runoff vote on Oct. 8.

The opposition parties, together with most foreign observers, think that the State Election Commission is lying. It says there was only a 64 percent turnout of voters, whereas they estimated the turnout at 73 percent — and think that all the missing voters were Kostunica supporters.

Mass demonstrations against the fraud have already begun in Belgrade, and it’s hard to believe that Milosevic can save himself without massive repression. Nevertheless, the two-week delay before a second vote gives the demon king of the Balkans a chance to change the outcome. Instead of quitting, he might start another war.

Milosevic made a rare miscalculation last July when he called the current elections. He assumed that the Serbian opposition parties would fall to bickering as usual and fail to come up with a single candidate, giving him an easy victory in the first round of voting for the Yugoslav presidency. Instead, most of them managed to unite behind Kostunica.

Kostunica is a former professor of constitutional law who, rarely for a Serbian political figure, has no hint of corruption or collaboration with evil in his past. In the old days he refused to join the ruling Communist Party. More recently, he has been almost unique among mainstream opposition leaders in rejecting every effort by Milosevic to co-opt him. As his campaign slogan put it: “Who can look you straight in the eyes? Kostunica.”

In Serbian political terms, Kostunica is a moderate nationalist — i.e., he says things like “The real U.S. goal is obviously a further breakup of Yugoslavia, and Milosevic’s victory (would) lead directly to it.” In the paranoid world of Serbian politics, this represents moderation and rationality, so millions of ordinary Serbs have seized on Kostunica as their one way out of the dead-end where Milosevic has trapped them.

As Kostunica’s lead widened during the campaign, the regime’s reaction became steadily more extreme. The last independent radio and television stations were shut down, and hundreds of activists were harassed or arrested. The opposition were vilified by the government-controlled media as terrorists and traitors in the service of the foreigners who are forever plotting against Serbia — “rats and hyenas,” as Milosevic put it. And above all, Milosevic dropped increasingly heavy hints that he would start a new war in Montenegro.

“When in trouble, start a war” has been Milosevic’s main tactic for political survival for a long time, and it is the main reason that Yugoslavia has shrunk from six republics and 20 million people when he took power in Serbia in 1989 to two republics and 8 million people now. And although tiny Montenegro (600,000 people) is identical to Serbia (7.5 million people) in language and religion, even the Montenegrins have begun to edge toward the exit door.

The Montenegrins have elected a separatist leader, Milo Djukanovic, who is so nervous about being attacked by Milosevic that last month he asked NATO to declare a “no-fly” zone over his republic. Many local observers now expect Milosevic to launch a crisis in Montenegro — attack the separatist government there and start a civil war, in effect — in order to avoid a decisive defeat in the second round of voting.

“Milosevic has again proven that he is ready to do very nasty things to stay in power,” said Deputy Prime Minister Dragisa Burzan after the announcement of a second round of voting. “It would be a fatal mistake for the (Serbian) opposition if it accepted the runoff vote.” But most of the actual fatalities would be in Montenegro.

It depends now on the discipline of those leading the mass protests in Belgrade and other Serbian cities. If they can keep it up, avoid violence, and remain united, there is a fair chance that Milosevic will not activate the Montenegro option, but instead seek a deal that allows him to surrender power without having to face the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. Then the 10-year nightmare in the Balkans will be at an end.

The track record of the Serbian opposition in this regard is pretty dismal. The massive demonstrations in Belgrade in the winter of 1996-97, after the last time Milosevic rigged an election, gradually died out as the splits among a dozen egotistic opposition leaders grew wider and wider. But this time they have the wind in their sails, and a clear majority on their side even by the government’s own figures. It could work.

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