Serbia Elects Confrontation

December 24, 1992

Slobodan Milosevic's re-election as president of Serbia was vote for ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia, for rape and torture, for starvation and murder, for announcing a hundred cease-fires and disregarding every one.

In all probability it was also a vote for ethnic cleansing of the majority Albanians from Kosovo Province. That could turn into a vote for a Balkan war, in which Albania would go to ethnic Albanians' rescue and Turkey to Albania's, and in which Mr. Milosevic would hope for aid from Greece and Russia as religious and historic allies.

Mr. Milosevic's opponent, Milan Panic, a naturalized American businessman and prime minister of federal Yugoslavia, never had a chance. Mr. Panic stood for moderation, peace, emptying concentration camps, giving back some of the land seized in Croatia and Bosnia, and above all for ending Serbia's isolation in the world. His is the acceptable face of Serbian nationalism. Some observers here have seen his federal office as mere distraction. Whatever concessions to world opinion that Mr. Panic offers, Mr. Milosevic ruthlessly pursues his extremist agenda, baldly lying that Bosnia's Serbs act independently of him.

Mr. Panic never had a political base. He offered a promise of freeing Serbia from economic sanctions, but he was attackable as a pawn of the West. Now he protests that the election was fraudulent, and foreign observers vigorously agree. There is no certainty what the outcome of an honest vote would have been, but there is little reason to believe that Mr. Milosevic and the Serb-led military forces would have allowed it to put Mr. Panic in power.

Not only did the rigged count reaffirm Mr. Milosevic by 55 to 35 percent, it showed gains across Serbia by the Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj. Mr. Seselj talks a more extreme game of "Greater Serbia" than Mr. Milosevic does. His brutal Chetnik militia has committed some of the worst atrocities. Mr. Seselj and Mr. Milosevic have both been branded as possible war criminals by Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

The election removed the last hope that a Panic victory could solve everyone else's Bosnia problem. It confronted the West with the choice of taking risky action to back Serbia down, or taking no action and abandoning the victims to atrocities. Gone is the dream of a third alternative dealing with a more pliable Serbian regime. NATO is gearing up to enforce a no-fly rule over Bosnia. This is more about making Serbia comply with United Nations mandates than it is about saving Bosnia's beleaguered Muslims.

Mr. Milosevic is a former Communist strongman who became first a banker and then a Serbian nationalist and calls himself a Socialist. Monopolizing power is what he does best. The cost of combating atrocity in the former Yugoslavia is higher than any nation wants to pay. Mr. Milosevic will not stop until he is stopped. There is no more pretending that hard choices can be avoided.

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