Chance for change

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 September, 2000, 12:00am

AFTER 13 years in which they have witnessed four wars, the disintegration of their country and bombing of their cities by Nato, Yugoslavs today have a chance to initiate momentous change.

On the one hand, the choice is between the autocratic leadership of Slobodan Milosevic or Vojislav Kostunica, the mild-mannered leader of the opposition. But at a more fundamental and far-reaching level, it is also a choice between two visions: a continuance of nationalism, which portrays the country as an isolated victim, or a new era of an outward-looking, democratic state.

Many uncertainties surround the outcome of the election; but whether Milosevic will mobilise all forces at his disposal to hang on to power is not one of them. Even if, as the polls suggest, his rival receives the electorate's blessing, Milosevic is unlikely to go quietly. He has shown himself to be a canny political operator in the past and there is no reason to think he will let his grasp of power slip away because of something so troublesome as an election. Indeed, it is unlikely that he would have let the vote take place unless he was confident of manipulating it in his favour. His grip on the media is absolute. But this arrogance could backfire if Milosevic has overestimated the strength of the cards he holds.

The US has openly backed opposition leader Mr Kostunica, reportedly supporting his campaign with US$25 million (HK$194 million). But this has played into Milosevic's hands. Many Serbs, even those who want to see Milosevic out of office, see this as gross interference in the country's internal affairs.

Exploiting Serb nationalism and brutally suppressing the opposition are Milosevic's trademarks. His message remains that in the face of a world united against Serbia, a strong leader is needed. But this mantra has lost much of its appeal as economic hardship, caused by international sanctions and domestic mismanagement, has taken its toll. Many people will fear yet another war if Milosevic stays and Montenegro declares independence, as it has vowed to do.

But the process of removing Milosevic is certain to be slow. The likely outcome of the election is that the President will steal victory through manipulation. The best that can be hoped is that the opposition stays united to reveal his fraud, and the autocrat's legitimacy will be further eroded in the minds of an increasing number of Serbs.