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Hope on the Balkans
Checkmate in Yugoslavia?

On their face, the Yugoslav elections appear to have failed in clarifying the country's political situation. Slobodan Milosevic is still president, has succeeded at least in postponing a day of reckoning and the West's crafty old enemy sits, for the moment, in Belgrade.

But in reality, a clarifying moment is unfolding. Amidst the riot police, the fights and the mixed results another round of voting in two weeks an important change has occurred. Milosevic may be replaced, but by another hard-line Serbian nationalist, Vojislav Kostunica. Kostunica will not necessarily be the easy ally Washington and London have hoped for, but he is most likely too strong for Milosevic to defeat.

The run-up to the voting created tremendous problems for Milosevic. Seeking to dispel the notion that he is not a democratic leader, he called an early election and quickly trailed in public opinion polls by Beografiti, Beta and Strategic Marketing. The accuracy of polling in the Balkans is questionable. But the impact was not. Even if Milosevic had managed to honestly rustle up enough votes to win on Sunday, the polls made it impossible for him to claim that he had done so fairly.

Even now in Yugoslavia and abroad, the fact that Milosevic trailed but didn't lose outright is being shrewdly turned against him. In effect, it has become impossible for Milosevic to again lay claim to being democratically elected even if he wins next month. He can govern if the police and military continue to back him, but he cannot extract what he wanted from the elections a new stamp of authority.

How did Milosevic, as crafty a politician as there is, allow himself to get boxed in? The answer goes back over a year ago, to the campaign waged by the West in general and the United States in particular since the end of the Kosovo war. Washington hoped that the loss of Kosovo would topple Milosevic and his regime.

As a result, the Clinton administration supported a range of his opponents, labeling them democratic alternatives when in fact they comprised a mixed bag of ideologies and interests, linked only by opposition to the president. The campaign ended earlier this year in abysmal failure. Regardless of their view on Milosevic, Serbs hated NATO and the United States; the support of either was the kiss of death. And the West's favorites were, in fact, a crew of losers who wasted precious time jockeying for position against one another.

But something changed in Western capitals a few months ago. Instead of seeking to overthrow the entire Milosevic regime including friends and supporters the Clinton administration signaled a shift, claiming it wanted to get rid of Milosevic only. Subsequent offers by the European Union echoed this, suggesting that certain Serb- owned companies might do business with the EU, while those with nefarious ties to the regime might not. Most likely, the U.S. government realized that to extricate itself from the morass in Kosovo, the only choice was to deal with the faction around Milosevic.

In months since, the real tension in Belgrade has not been between democrats and the oligarchs of the regime, but within the circle of oligarchs itself. There have been two camps. In one are members of the elite who have decided to end the impasse and protect their positions. In the other is Milosevic, who decided to play the nationalist card one more time with the election and bring followers in the Socialist Party of Serbia back into his camp.

But Milosevic may have miscalculated. He did not count on the emergence of a nationalist like himself as the main challenger. Vojislav Kostunica derives his popularity from a track record that reflects Milosevic's own. Kostunica is a hard-line Serbian nationalist and a committed opponent of the West. He condemned last year's war and labeled NATO's prosecution of the air campaign as a series of criminal acts. He has said that he would not cooperate with the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. And Kostunica has flatly stated he would not turn in Milosevic, according to the Yugoslav press.

Most importantly, Kostunica draws his own popularity from the same well as Milosevic. Kostunica has gone out of his way to clarify that, unlike the rest of the opposition, he has accepted no money from the United States; a top U.S. official has confirmed the claim. To some degree, Kostunica spells trouble for Washington. If he wins, he will not take orders or transform Yugoslavia into a portrait of Western hopes, all neatly fulfilled.

But more immediately, it appears Milosevic has walked into a trap. He called an election nine months before the constitution required, saw unreliable polls constructed into iron-clad arguments against him and watched as his own circle of followers considered their futures independent of his.

The West, too, may have lent a helping hand, albeit indirectly. The United Nations announced it would allow Serbs in Kosovo to vote, for example, but peacekeeping troops would neither escort Serbs to the polls nor safeguard polling stations and ballot boxes. Finally, the EU's promise to lift economic sanctions if Milosevic is defeated sweetens the deal for members of the Serb elite.

After years of bumbling, it appears the West has trapped Milosevic. An important discussion will now take place within the Serbian political elite: Will Kostunica protect them if he wins, cleaning out only those closest to Milosevic? The elite is likely posing the same self-interested questions to Washington.

If the right answers are delivered to the right people, the trap will finally be closed. Even if Milosevic moves to stage a coup, the people he will need the most will be ready to turn on him.

(c) 2000 Stratfor, Inc.

Source: Stratfor

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