WASHINGTON - As opponents of Slobodan Milosevic flooded the streets of Belgrade yesterday, Western nations declared the Serbian leader the loser in Yugoslavia's presidential elections and called on him to yield power to opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica.
Encouraged by signs that Milosevic's iron grip on power was slipping, the United States, Britain, the European Union and other nations said polling results and the large voter turnout clearly showed Yugoslavs' wish for a change in government.
"Despite the muddled situation and the delayed vote count, a few facts are becoming clear," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "There was a massive turnout. There was a massive, unprecedented effort at fraud by the authorities. And the popular vote was a vote for democracy."
In Belgrade, up to 40,000 people gathered in the main square for what the organizers called a farewell concert for Milosevic's ruling coalition.
"We came to celebrate victory against Milosevic. He is finished, he will leave, he must," said Ljiljana Djuretanovic, 32, among the happy, singing crowd. "We waited for 10 years. We lost so much, it's finally happened."
Large rallies were staged in other major cities, with no reports of the clashes with police that had been feared before Sunday's presidential and parliamentary elections.
Other nations calling for Milosevic to concede victory to Kostunica included Germany, France, Norway and Austria. Even Italy, which has been more sympathetic toward the Yugoslav regime than some other European nations, joined what was apparently a well-coordinated verbal salvo against Milosevic. Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini said "disastrous consequences" would ensue if Milosevic tried to claim victory.
The international clamor was intended to forestall attempts by Milosevic to steal the election through fraud and to encourage Serbs to engineer his exit, Balkans specialists said. The lack of an official result more than 24 hours after the polls closed on Sunday suggested that the Belgrade regime was teetering and unsure of its next move, analysts said.
"There are welcome signs that Milosevic may not have as complete control over the situation as he would have liked," said Ivo Daalder, a Balkans specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There's a lot of jockeying going on, a lot of turmoil. The outcome that we thought was most likely - that Milosevic would steal the election in the first round - is now the least likely."
Poll numbers differ
Milosevic's Socialist Party said their leader was winning the election, with 37 percent of the vote counted. Milosevic had 45 percent of the vote, compared with 40 percent for Kostunica, the party said.
"It clearly shows a tendency, that we be optimistic about the rest of the results and the probability that our candidate, Slobodan Milosevic, will win in the first round," said Gorica Gajevic, secretary general of the Socialist Party.
Gajevic said preliminary results showed Milosovic's ruling coalition heading for an absolute majority in both houses of the federal parliament but set to lose control of some towns and cities in local elections also held Sunday.
Zoran Djindjic, coordinator of the main opposition bloc, said that with results in from 60 percent of the polling stations, Kostunica had 55 percent of the presidential vote and Milosevic about 36 percent. Djindjic said the governing coalition's strategy appeared to be to try to force a runoff, giving it a second chance for victory, but he insisted that the maneuver would fail.
There was no word from Milosevic on the election, with fears persisting that the authorities would declare victory for their candidate and resort to violence to retain their hold on power. Nor was there any sign of official results more than 24 hours after polls closed, and there was little indication that the state-run Federal Electoral Commission was hurrying its work.
Opposition monitors posted in the building said the body did not seem to be processing the results publicly, raising fears of fraud. Ceda Jovanovic, head of the main opposition bloc's election headquarters, called on the commission to get to work. But according to some experts, the law allows the commission until Thursday to produce official results.
'A people's victory'
Asked what he would do if Milosevic did not recognize an opposition victory, Kostunica said that he would not give up but that he does not support violence.
"The numbers speak for us," said Kostunica, a 56-year-old law professor. "We will fight in democratic ways. The truth is our strongest weapon. We don't want to provoke internal tensions and foreign intervention. This is a people's victory."
At least two signs emerged yesterday suggesting that Milosevic's hold on power is shaky even among longstanding supporters.
The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, part of Milosevic's ruling coalition, publicly conceded that Milosevic was trailing badly in the polls, saying Kostunica was leading Milosevic by 54 percent to 38 percent with 20 percent of the votes counted.
At the same time, Tanjug, a Yugoslav news agency that has been tightly controlled by the Milosevic regime, issued a report showing that Kostunica was ahead in the vote count, Daalder said.
If Milosevic does not try to proclaim victory in the first round, analysts said, he could try to prevail in a runoff Oct. 8, which is required if no candidate obtains at least half the vote in the preliminary tally. Or he could allow a runoff as a stalling tactic and then generate some sort of crisis as a pretext for canceling the vote.
Some Balkans watchers have suggested that Kostunica, no friend of the West, would strike a deal under which Milosevic would cede power but be allowed to stay in Serbia, which along with Montenegro makes up the Yugoslav Federation. Such an arrangement would satisfy conditions for the lifting of many economic and diplomatic sanctions directed against Yugoslavia.
"If the democratic change occurs, we will take steps to lift sanctions," Boucher said. "We've made that clear."
Europe and the United States have demanded that Milosevic surrender to the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in the Netherlands, where he is under indictment for crimes relating to Serbian aggression against Bosnia. But most international sanctions against Yugoslavia are tied to the holding of free elections, not to Belgrade's cooperation with The Hague.
Others have suggested that Europe might try to arrange a sanctuary for Milosevic and his indicted cronies in some neighbor nation, perhaps Belarus or Russia.
"The first thing you do is, you've got to find someplace for him to go," said John Bolton, a former assistant U.S. secretary of state who advocates striking deals with pariah leaders in selected cases if the arrangements advance wider diplomatic goals. "He's got to have some indication that he gets out with some kind of immunity from prosecution."
"No, no, no and no," responded a spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington. "Milosevic has been indicted. His place is in The Hague and nowhere else."
Not all European capitals joined Washington, Berlin and others yesterday in demanding that Milosevic concede defeat.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said he saw "no serious irregularities" in Sunday's vote and called on the West to lift sanctions against Yugoslavia, according to the Itar-Tass news agency. Greece, like Russia, seen as sympathetic to Serbia, also called for an end to sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was in Germany visiting Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. At a joint news conference, as Putin looked on, Schroeder presumed to speak for both of them on Yugoslavia, saying: "We agreed ... that it looks as though Serbia and Yugoslavia have decided in favor of a democratic change."
Perhaps no Western diplomat was as forceful in demanding Milosevic's departure as British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who said: "Today, Milosevic is a beaten, broken-backed president. My message to him today is, 'Be honest with your people. Get out of the way and let Serbia get out of the prison you have turned it into.'"
Wire services contributed to this article.