Votes and violence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2000, 12:00am

Throughout the past century, much of the Balkans' contribution to world affairs has consisted of war and misery, sometimes exported to the rest of Europe. Following last Sunday's elections in Yugoslavia, the pattern seems all too likely to be repeated.

By all unofficial accounts, President Slobodan Milosevic was the clear loser, with the relatively obscure lawyer and politician Dr Vojislav Kostunica scoring a decisive victory. Unfortunately, in today's Yugoslavia who counts the ballots is much more important than who casts them, and electoral fraud may see Milosevic emerge as the official winner.

If he does, that sets the stage for violence. Most people are fed up with his 13-year presidency, which has seen a much larger Yugoslavia cut down to the regions of Serbia and adjoining Montenegro, with even that small territory wanting to break away. Living standards have dropped, the nation is isolated from Europe and repression has increased. The main beneficiaries are an assortment of police, party officials, smugglers and gangsters.

But electoral theft may bring mob protests, or perhaps an armed diversion into Montenegro. Milosevic has demonstrated more than once that he will use guns to stay in office, and his security forces remain loyal. Officially branded a war criminal by an international tribunal, he knows the future is grim if he surrenders power.

The West has warned him against stealing the election, but its 'or else' remains unclear. With an election imminent, the US has little interest in military intervention to preserve democracy or even to save Montenegro. The chances of Europeans acting on their own seem remote. Milosevic has bluffed his way past such warnings before, and it is all too possible that he will do so again.