WASHINGTON -- U.S. and European leaders reached out to the Yugoslav people yesterday after they apparently ousted Slobodan Milosevic, the xenophobic despot who led them through 13 years of war, isolation and ethnic enmity.
"The people of Serbia have made their opinion clear," said President Clinton, referring to Yugoslavia's dominant republic. "They did it when they voted peacefully and quietly, and now they're doing it in the streets, because there's been an attempt to rob them of their vote."
While Milosevic's apparent downfall came after almost two years of Washington-led pressure against his regime, including a 78-day NATO bombing campaign, U.S. officials were reluctant to publicly take credit yesterday or predict a bright new future for Belgrade.
For one thing, it was far from clear last night whether Milosevic had truly reached the end, although the opposition's seizure of Yugoslavia's legislature, media outlets and key businesses made it hard to imagine that he could remain in charge.
"I find it very difficult to see how he can begin to reconstitute that power," said Samuel R. Berger, the White House national security adviser. "We are in contact with the European allies and giving full support to the people of Serbia. They have spoken at the ballot box, and they are now very dramatically speaking on the streets of Belgrade."
Nonetheless, U.S. officials continued to be leery of seeming to back opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica too strongly. Western support is not a political asset in Yugoslavia, and U.S. officials have feared that hearty endorsements on their part would undermine Kostunica's position.
At the same time, while many Balkans analysts believe Kostunica would increase the rule of law and democracy in Yugoslavia, there is no guarantee that he would be a leader that Washington would be happy with. Kostunica vehemently denounced the NATO bombing campaign last year and shares some of Milosevic's pro-Serb chauvinism, analysts believe.
A statement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a sample of the delicate dance the West will be doing with Kostunica if he solidifies his grasp on power.
"I say this to the people of Serbia," Blair said, "whatever the differences that have been between us. Now that you have reached for democracy, the hand of friendship and partnership from countries like Britain is there for you."
Even Al Gore, who as vice president helped push the Clinton administration to take military action in Kosovo last year and who will presumably try to reap political credit from a Milosevic exit, was not doing so yesterday.
"We call upon Milosevic to get out of power," said Gore, the Democratic Party candidate for president. "It will be taken from him if he does not, because the people of Serbia have spoken, and now they're rising up."
Gore's Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, made similar comments, saying it is "clear the people have spoken. It is time for Mr. Milosevic to go."
Like European leaders, U.S. officials ruled out any military intervention in Yugoslavia, even though the West has thousands of troops on the ground in Kosovo, which is part of Serbia, and in neighboring Bosnia.
"I don't believe that it's an appropriate case for military intervention, and I don't believe that the United States should say or do anything which would only strengthen Mr. Milosevic's hand," Clinton said.
European leaders echoed U.S. officials' calls for Milosevic to resign. But, perhaps because Europe has recent, firsthand knowledge of tyrants and politics that spill blood in the streets, European admonishments took on a darker tone.
"My appeal is, don't resort to violence," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder urged Milosevic. "Don't shoot your own people."
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin called on opposition forces in Yugoslavia to avoid an escalation of violence and said he hoped the country's international isolation could be ended. Putin, speaking on his return to Moscow from a three-day visit to India, met with senior advisers to discuss the situation in Belgrade.
"We are ready to contribute to this country overcoming the current crisis, coming out of international isolation and putting itself firmly on the path of democratic development," Putin said in comments broadcast on state-owned RTR television.
Early today the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had left Moscow for Belgrade. The ministry gave no details on the trip, but it was likely that Ivanov would be meeting with Kostunica.
Romanian Foreign Minister Petre Roman, who helped topple dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, recalled Ceausescu's orders to troops to fire on Romanian citizens and urged Yugoslav security forces to hold their fire.
"I ask the special troops to not shoot at the people, to not repeat the tragedy of the Romanian revolution," said Roman. "They will have nightmares for the rest of their lives."