Published on Friday, September 29, 2000 in the New York Times
Civil Disobedience Is Planned to Try to Force Milosevic Out
by Steven Erlanger
BELGRADE, Serbia Serbia's democratic opposition thinks it has a president in Vojislav Kostunica. But it also has a problem: how to get the incumbent, President Slobodan Milosevic, out of power.
The problem is more than technical. Mr. Milosevic shows no signs of wanting to go.
So Mr. Kostunica and the leaders of 18 parties decided to call a rally for 2 p.m. Friday in Belgrade. The opposition insists that he won the first round of voting outright last Sunday, and intends to boycott the second round that the government has decided on.
At the rally they will ask the people of Serbia to perform "any act of civil disobedience they have at their disposal" until Mr. Milosevic leaves office, Zarko Korac, a party leader, said after Mr. Kostunica and the opposition met tonight.
Talking of rolling strikes, the closing of roads, cinemas, theaters, shops and schools, Mr. Korac said: "We know it's a high-risk game, but we know we have no alternative. Through the rigging of votes, Milosevic is clearly challenging us, and since we are being pushed into the street, we must accept it. It is Milosevic who has declared war. We'll start tomorrow and see how we end up and how far we have to go."
If Mr. Kostunica does not run, Mr. Milosevic may win by default unless the opposition can force him to recognize his election defeat in the meantime, through legal efforts in dubious courts or through popular pressure.
Speaking to some 3,000 people who had gathered spontaneously in the square tonight, Zoran Djindjic and other opposition party leaders said they would start at 2 p.m. and remain in the square until Mr. Milosevic leaves office.
"After 10 years, we have to show that we are ready to defend our will and overthrow one regime," Mr. Djindjic said. Another party official, Slobodan Orlic, said: "He can do nothing to us. He is broken."
Mr. Milosevic is clearly hoping that his special police, which he has built up and paid well at the expense of the army, will stand by him in the face of what could be widespread protests. But the decision to boycott has given him an opportunity, too.
Today, he met the main officials of his Socialist Party and those of his allies, and in his first appearance on television since Sunday's vote, announced that he would run in the second round.
Mr. Milosevic's Federal Election Commission, in an announcement early this morning, confirmed its preliminary results and declared that Mr. Kostunica, while running 10 percentage points ahead of Mr. Milosevic, had failed to win more than 50 percent of the votes in the election on Sunday, meaning he and Mr. Milosevic would have to face each other in a runoff on Oct. 8.
Mr. Kostunica and the democratic opposition, backed by the United States and the European Union, have cried fraud, and say that their count shows clearly that he won more than 52 percent of the vote.
Mr. Kostunica has ruled out a second round, saying that to take part would be to accept electoral fraud and betray the votes of the people. "If we bargained, then we would acknowledge a lie instead of the truth," he told a rally of more than 200,000 people in Belgrade on Wednesday. "If we bargained, we would admit that one man's will is greater than the will of the people."
Mr. Milosevic is clearly buying time. He is hoping to hold his party, his coalition and his security forces together, while dividing the opposition and the outside world with the idea that a second round is hardly undemocratic.
But Mr. Kostunica and other opposition leaders believe that the second round is a trap, and that Mr. Milosevic will have more time to prepare an enormous vote fraud or to find a pretext to cancel or annul a second round, and thus remain in power.
Asked in an interview on Wednesday whether he saw risks in his boycott strategy and might allow Mr. Milosevic to remain in power, Mr. Kostunica shrugged. "I won't exclude that risk," he said. "But risk is all round us. Living in a country with Slobodan Milosevic is risky. But he is buying time, and this is something that cannot last long."
Mr. Kostunica found moral support today from the Serbian Orthodox Church, which recognized his election victory and addressed him as "president elect." And the leader of the Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, until recently a Milosevic ally, congratulated Mr. Kostunica on his election. In Montenegro, the anti-Milosevic prime minister, Filip Vujanovic, also recognized Mr. Kostunica as president.
The 18 opposition party leaders met twice today to discuss strategy, with some leaders more radical than others. They decided on following two tracks: first, a legal track which Mr. Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer, insists upon challenging the findings of the Federal Election Commission in the courts; and second, people power pressure through a mixture of rallies, strikes and other demonstrations.
There was nothing except random gatherings today, with a few thousand people gathering in Belgrade and Uzice and more substantial spontaneous rallies in Novi Sad and Cacak. In Gornji Milanovac, high school students went on strike, saying they would not return to school until Mr. Milosevic left office. In Krusevac, which was a Socialist town, the local television and radio started showing news from independent Radio B2-92 and Radio Free Europe.
"People are angry, but our dilemma is how to organize their protests without burning people out," Mr. Korac said. He said leaders were discussing a mix of protests, rallies, strikes and encouragements to Mr. Milosevic's allies to abandon him.
Mr. Kostunica has been reluctant to provide an early provocation to the police, but he says he believes that in the end the police and the army will not act against the will of the nation.
A general strike in Serbia, suggested early this morning by Mr. Djindjic, the leader of the Democratic Party, is problematic, given the poverty of people and the high level of unemployment anyway. But the opposition is discussing general strikes in one city at a time.
To bolster its case before the courts and world opinion, the opposition says it has clear evidence of fraud, including the sudden disappearance from the rolls of 600,000 voters, the inclusion of invalid ballots to lower Mr. Kostunica's percentages and the counting of ballots from polling stations in Kosovo that apparently never opened.
To the opposition's outrage tonight, the election commission declared that its work for the first round was done, refused to hear opposition complaints and, in a final statement, took away four seats from the opposition in the lower house of the federal Parliament.
But opposition efforts to get large numbers of the government-appointed commissioners to resign apparently failed, although there were reports that Bojan Pudar, the commission's vice president, had quit.
Western diplomats said they thought that Mr. Milosevic would not succeed in holding on to power and that his government was already crumbling. But experts here said Mr. Milosevic appeared to encounter no dissent at the meeting of his party's main board or a second meeting of the leaders of his coalition.
"In the end, Milosevic can keep power only by killing Serbs," a diplomat said. "But the police and the army know that people voted for Kostunica, and many of them voted for him, too."
President Clinton today urged Mr. Milosevic to honor the results of the election. "The people of Yugoslavia have spoken loud and clear in support of democratic change," Mr. Clinton said in Washington. "It is time for Mr. Milosevic to heed the call of the Serb people, step down, and allow a peaceful democratic transition to take place."
The United States and the European Union, with France in its revolving presidency, are pressing the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, to help make Mr. Milosevic yield. The French foreign minister, Hubert Vιdrine, was in Moscow today, and there were reports that the Milosevic government sent copies of its electoral material to Moscow where Mr. Milosevic's brother, Borislav, is the Yugoslav ambassador to try to convince Mr. Putin that a second round is necessary.
"The Russians will evaluate the evidence, and the opposition has the better evidence," a Western official said. "No one has a veto over the fact that change will come. There is an opportunity for the Russians to help this along more quickly and easily and leave fewer scars in Serbia."
But in a statement, Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov said Moscow "stands firmly for the peoples of Yugoslavia to have full freedom to express their will without internal or external pressure."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company