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Hope on the Balkans
Hold the applause for Milosevic challenger

Yugoslavs go to the polls Sept. 24 to select, or re-elect, a president. Not only is Slobodan Milosevic not threatened by these elections, but also the West has prematurely placed its hopes on his challenger, Vojislav Kostunica. No doubt the West would have better relations with Kostunica than Milosevic, but the fact remains Yugoslavia's population remains deeply suspicious of Western advances. Until the West is willing to address those suspicions, the West and Yugoslavia will remain at an impasse.

For the first time, Yugoslavia will select a president by popular vote Sept. 24. Citing new poll data, Western capitals are abuzz with the hope that Milosevic may lose the election he himself called nine months before he was legally required. The elections, however, do not threaten Milosevic, and even if they did, the West would find that a Milosevic-free Yugoslavia would fail to rise to Western expectations.

The West personalized all of the Yugoslav conflicts, specifically and purposefully demonizing Milosevic. This strategy makes it impossible to end the diplomatic animosity while Milosevic remains in power. The possibility that he will simply be voted out of office has Western leaders salivating.

On the surface, it seems Milosevic is in real trouble. He lags in the polls behind the joint opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica. And leading Yugoslav personalities such as former presidents Dobrica Cosic and Milosevic's Radical Party coalition partner Tomislav Nikolic have thrown their support behind the challenger. If independence-minded Montenegro, the other member of the Yugoslav Federation, decides to participate in the vote, Milosevic could face electoral defeat.

But Milosevic has shown no compunction in manipulating legal structures, whether they be elections or constitutional amendments. This election will prove no different. Milosevic's grip on the Yugoslav government, including the electoral system, is as firm as ever. There may be protests. There may be outrage. But if Milosevic wants to "win" the election, he certainly can.

It is very possible that Milosevic will win without cheating. What began as more than a 20 percent lead in independent polls in late August narrowed to a 7 percent lead Sept. 10.

In the case of an electoral loss, Milosevic has other tools at his disposal. Even with recent defections there are bevies of Serbian smugglers, bureaucrats, officers and power brokers - most notably his wife, Mirjana Markovic - that have hitched themselves to Milosevic's political star. None want to see a regime shift. Milosevic's support among the security forces remains solid, and the West should keep in mind that this is a man who has had a hand in a series of bloody conflicts over the past decade. He is certainly not intimidated by protestors with catchy slogans.

But by heralding Kostunica as the best thing out of Yugoslavia since the 1984 Winter Olympics, the West misses the point. While it is hard to image that President Kostunica would be a more difficult personality than President Milosevic, that doesn't mean he will follow Croatian President Stipe Mesic's unabashedly pro-Western path, complete with dragging the entire Croatian Cabinet to every Western capital that will play host to them.

Kostunica's enthusiasts point out that he is one of the country's few politicians without political or financial ties to Milosevic, and they trump up his past as a human rights activist in the 1980s. But in 1980s Yugoslavia, "human rights activist" was a euphemism for someone who opposed the regime. During that time, late Croatian President Franco Tudjman, current Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, and former Serbian Vice President Vojislav Seselj - all ultranationalists with a penchant for violence - also considered themselves advocates of human rights.

Kostunica has already publicly condemned NATO for its "criminal acts" during the Kosovo war, and, during an interview with Vujic TV, ruled out cooperation with the International War Crimes Tribunal. Radio Montenegro reported Kostunica's claim that, if elected, he would not turn in Milosevic. Kostunica lays the blame for Milosevic's rule squarely at the West's feet, saying that the 1999 NATO bombing campaign and the nearly decade-old sanctions regime has helped Milosevic and hurt the common people."

Since most Serbians regard the disorganized and feudal Serbian opposition as stooges of the "NATO oppressors," this may make Kostunica, who calls himself a moderate nationalist, the only alternative to Milosevic. This is not to say that Kostunica will follow the Tudjman/Seselj path of ethnic hatred, but Kostunica will not be the pro-Western saint that many are setting him up to be. He may offer moderation where Milosevic was a stone wall, or diplomacy where his predecessor would have lashed out, but he will represent an electorate that has been systematically starved, frozen, bombed and humiliated by the West.

Facing that level of popular enmity is the West's true challenge - regardless of Milosevic's presence at Yugoslavia's helm. Until the West is willing to own up to and address that hostility, it doesn't really matter who rules in Belgrade. A cold pragmatism could be in order, but friendship is certainly not.

Source: Stratfor

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