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Milosevic, high priest of chaos


WASHINGTON -- One would have to believe in the tooth fairy to expect a Balkan dictator to submit to the will of the voters and give up power.

For Slobodan Milosevic, matters are even more complicated. He faces the Hague War Crimes Tribunal where he has been indicted. Few countries --perhaps Russia or China -- may be willing to give him exile. The prospects of a peaceful retirement in Belgrade are quite remote: it is difficult to expect forgiveness from a people impoverished and traumatized by his blood stained misrule.

So what should Mr. Milosevic be expected to do after his defeat in Sunday's presidential elections? Even in the patently rigged vote, all he could claim was 40 percent of the vote to 48 percent for the opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica. The result allowed Mr. Milosevic to stall; failure to get 50 percent of the vote requires runoff elections on Oct. 8.

There are several possible scenarios. Observers have for a long time feared that Mr. Milosevic would never accede to the loss of power. Like a high priest of chaos, he has caused mischief and wars to exploit for his own purposes. The only discernible patterns of his rule has been perpetual mayhem. He is still strong enough to crush the opposition and continue Serbia's isolation.

According to this thinking, Mr. Milosevic is capable of provoking armed conflicts within his own country. A boycott of the Oct. 8 runoff elections by the opposition parties could serve as a pretext for a short and bloody civil war within Serbia proper.

Another scenario involves a Machiavellian maneuver to gain time. He could give up the post of Yugoslav president and retain real power. The presidency is a largely ceremonial position and it was held by political non-entities for a long time while Mr. Milosevic wielded real power as president of Serbia.

A significant aspect of Sunday's election is that his leftist coalition has gained an absolute majority in the Yugoslav parliament. This means that Mr. Milosevic could easily assume the post of prime minister and, as such, the effective control over foreign, economic and military affairs. This would give him time to recoup, create a paralysis of the system and then oust the elected president without bloodshed.

Mr. Milosevic has in the past skillfully exploited the notorious divisions among Serbia's opposition parties. Yet another scenario would center on Montenegro, Serbia's sister republic, which is ruled by his pro-Western opponent, Milo Djukanovic. Montenegro's population is deeply divided on the question of their common future with Serbia. Mr. Milosevic could use this to spark a civil war in Montenegro, then use it as a pretext to impose martial law on all of Yugoslavia.

Finally, there are optimists who see Mr. Milosevic's defeat Sunday as a watershed. In their view, this will weaken his standing within his own political base, which includes the police, the army, the old communist cadres, the pensioners and veterans. Mr. Milosevic's last 10 years of war, sanctions and isolation must have eroded their willingness to back the dictator through thick and thin.

The swollen tide of public opinion is significant. Balkan bureaucrats and officials tend to go with the winner. Much will depend on Mr. Milosevic's state of mind.

Nine years ago, Mr. Milosevic saw himself as "Ayatollah Khomeini of Serbia -- the Serbs will follow me no matter what." Today, he is an indicted war criminal, an international pariah and a failed nationalist leader who has turned Serbia into an economic disaster area.

More than two decades ago, I wrote a book about Yugoslavia. It began with the sentence, "Yugoslavia is a country in which anything can happen and usually does." I did not realize at the time just how true is that simple declarative sentence.

Dusko Doder is an author and journalist who specializes in Russia and the Balkans.

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