Free elections in Yugoslav republic pit nationalists against Communists

December 09, 1990|By Laura Silber | Laura Silber,Special to The Sun

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Hard-line Communists in Yugoslavia's biggest republic, Serbia, are fighting for survival in today's elections, which mark the end of one-party Communist rule.

Meanwhile, in neighboring and traditionally pro-Communist Montenegro, Yugoslavia's smallest republic, the vote is being contested by the Communists and 10 other parties, including some who seek union with Serbia. Serbia's Communists have -- until the last possible moment -- resisted the wave of democracy that swept Eastern Europe last year. But today, 6.8 million voters will go to the polls in the first of two rounds of elections which pit nationalists against Communists.

At issue in today's elections is whether Serbia will choose the Communists, led by Slobodan Milosevic, which has brought Serbia into direct conflict with the other Yugoslavian republics, or will opt for ultra-nationalist right-wingers led by Vuk Draskovic.

The Movement for Serbian Renewal is the only party seen to have a chance to oust the Communists from power in Serbia's first multiparty elections in more than 50 years.

The campaign, with 52 parties contesting elections for the presidency and the Parliament, has bordered on the absurd. The Communists (renamed socialists) have used their tight control of the media to attack the opposition and smear non-Communist candidates -- especially Mr. Draskovic.

Economic issues have remained muted. The republic's industry, propped up for decades by state subsidies, is on the verge of collapse.

Instead, the Communists have spread rumors of Vatican-Comintern-Moslem fundamentalist and, at times, U.S. plots to destroy Serbia.

Mr. Milosevic, whose popularity has slumped since he was elected last year in an election rigged to give him more than 100 percent of the vote, is leading Mr. Draskovic in the latest polls. He will gain support from Communists and from voters who fear a nationalist victory will lead the republic into civil war. Workers who fear that a market economy will leave them without jobs will also support him.

Mr. Milosevic came to power on promises to restore national pride to Serbs. He won great popularity as the first Communist leader to take up the plight of the 200,000-strong Serbian minority in the Serbian-controlled province of Kosovo, where Albanians are a majority.

He promised to shake up the ossified, over-privileged party bureaucracy and restore Serbia's authority over its provinces. The costs of Mr. Milosevic's rule in Serbia were high. In Kosovo, scores of ethnic Albanians were killed during protests against Serbian control. Kosovo's 1.8 million Albanians will boycott today's elections to protest the Serbian takeover.

Mr. Milosevic's aggressive nationalism placed Serbia on a collision course with the western republics of Croatia and Slovenia. Serbia's policies brought to a head the simmering conflict between the Catholic Croats, Yugoslavia's second-largest ethnic group, and the Orthodox Christian Serbs. On the eve of the elections, Serbia is isolated from the western republics and condemned by the West because of human rights violations in Kosovo.

By encouraging nationalism, Serbia's Communists can be credited with wrenching Yugoslavia into a new era. After today's elections, the stage will be set for the elected leaders of Yugoslavia's six republics to determine the country's future political makeup.

At a final election rally, Mr. Draskovic said, "In the Communists' hands are tanks, weapons, and [former President] Tito's generals, but we have voting ballots which are the bullets of democracy."

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