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Yugoslav vote proves a challenge for the EU
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Presidential elections due to be held on Sunday in Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) are proving the first serious challenge to the leadership of President Slobodan Milosevic since he came to power more than ten years ago.
The West has laid blame for the wars and civil strife littering the breakup of Yugoslavia firmly at his door and he will go down in history with the dubious honour of being the first presidential candidate anywhere in the world to be publicly indicted for war crimes.
The president's popularity rating abroad is zero and the west wants rid of him and his popularity at home appears to be heading in the same direction - polls show Milosevic trailing by up to 20 points behind the main opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica.
The international community is attempting to capitalise on the president's slow slide from favour. The United States is in the process of spending an estimated $77 million on a democracy-building programme aimed solely at getting rid of Slobodan Milosevic using the ballot box as opposed to bombs.
The European Union is backing it up with strong financial and political support for Montenegro's efforts to follow the democratic path, along with humanitarian assistance to Serbia and support for independent media.
European Union foreign ministers have promised to lift sanctions and provide reconstruction aid for Serbia if Milosevic is ousted this weekend.
But events on the ground are proving more complicated.
Montenegro shuns Yugoslav elections
For a start, Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic, in an attempt to further distance his country from its federal partner Serbia, is refusing to recognise the election and Montenegrin television is not allowed to cover it.
This, however, will not prevent Montenegrins casting votes in improvised ballot boxes set up in people's homes, army barracks and the like.
The anti-Milosevic camp is being encouraged to abstain and most votes cast are likely to be pro-Milosevic.
In Kosovo, officially part of Serbia, the Albanian community will, as it has always done, boycott the election.
Between 150 and 300 ballot boxes have been set up in Mitrovica and Strpce, the two areas overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Serbs. A large number of voters are likely, however, to vote for the opposition.
But without any official organisation of the ballots or international monitoring of the electoral register, it is feared that Milosevic - who controls the election process and the counting of votes - will easily be able to claim victory over the opposition.
The danger, according to watchers inside NATO and the EU, is in the case of a small victory being claimed by the pro-Milosevic camp.
The opposition, even if it suspects fraud, may decide it has no choice but to accept the result and back off until next time. That leaves the west back facing the same dilemma - how to remove President Milosevic using non-violent methods.
Anything approaching a landslide victory is likely to invite accusations of vote-rigging and provoke a massive outcry.
Massive street protests would invite police and army clampdowns with the international community at a loss to know how to react. Western words of condemnation have yet to prove effective against determined and deliberate brutality.
Yet Milosevic does not have to go until July - he has called this election early, but he does not have to leave early.
"An invitation to the opposition to share power during this nine-month period would give him the opportunity to co-opt and corrupt and re-emerge as top dog," commented one senior NATO official.
EU aid offer 'could backfire'
The EU would then have to decide if it is still able to lift sanctions under those circumstances, risking a backlash if it does not.
Alternatively, Milosevic could hand over the federal presidency to the opposition and make himself prime minister of Serbia - it is the constant switching between federal and domestic power and swift changes to the constitution that have managed to keep him in office for so long.
EU Commissioner Chris Patten is currently visiting Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia. In a speech in Washington recently, he stated his hope that Serbs will be very clear when they vote.
"Now is the chance to break with the past, to rejoin Europe," he said. "It is their choice: let them be allowed to exercise it freely for once, and put an end to their country's estrangement from modern Europe."
But for the Serbs it is not as simple as it would seem.
Even the promise of masses of western aid does not have the lure the EU might have hoped. Opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica has made a point of stressing he is not interested in accepting western aid.
It is remains doubtful if this election will give Kostunica the opportunity to be in the official position of being able to take it or leave it.
Tension mounts ahead of Yugoslavia elections
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
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