Belgrade ballots

October 08, 2002

THE UNITED STATES is quietly trying to buy votes in Serbia, which may or may not be electing a new president this Sunday. It could easily backfire, since the candidate most closely attuned to Western ways of thinking is likely to fail badly. But a bigger problem is that both candidates might fail - if turnout is less than 50 percent, the election is annulled, and the Balkans' most dangerous country enters uncharted territory.

Last week Washington agreed to write off two-thirds of Yugoslavia's debt, and this week Congress takes up a bill normalizing trade relations. Both moves, in themselves, are welcome, but, coming just before an election, they unavoidably smack of political consideration. The logical beneficiary would be pro-reform candidate Miroljub Labus, a close ally of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. But market reforms are less than popular in Serbia, and the American bouquets are likely to be greeted with resentment rather than hosannas.

Mr. Djindjic is the man who turned Slobodan Milosevic over to the Hague Tribunal. Last week, in one of those neat coincidences of life, Serbs were transfixed by the testimony of the president of Croatia, Stipe Mesic, at Mr. Milosevic's trial. In a legal sense, Mr. Mesic probably helped the prosecution case, but the feeling in Belgrade was that Mr. Milosevic had gotten the better of him during cross-examination. To Serbs it was evidence that the man who engineered the terrible wars of the 1990s still has a few star turns left in him.

Does it matter? Yes. In the first round of the Serbian presidential elections, Mr. Milosevic endorsed, from his jail cell, a gruesome extremist named Vojislav Seselj, who then did twice as well as the polls had predicted - picking up 23 percent of the vote overall.

Mr. Seselj was eliminated, but his showing underscored the depths of anger and fear lurking in the country. Now he has called upon his supporters to boycott the second round of the vote - and if sufficient numbers heed his call he could succeed in throwing Serbia into political turmoil.

The frontrunner - Mr. Labus' opponent - is Vojislav Kostunica, whose current job as president of Yugoslavia is about to expire. Mr. Kostunica does not look fondly upon America, but he is also an opponent of war and tyranny, Balkan-style. He puts a respectable face on Serbian nationalism; now he is appealing to Mr. Seselj's supporters for their votes in the second round, warning of "chaos and anarchy" if they stay home.

This is a moment for America to pay close attention, but to act with a light touch. Mr. Kostunica is prickly; some of his foes are a lot worse. Serbia may be headed for a rough patch, and that will require unusual skill and sensitivity in Washington.

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