Slobodan Milosevic is backed into the tightest corner he has seen in years. The wily Yugoslav leader has presided over the disintegration of his country, lost four wars, isolated his people internationally, seen himself indicted as a war criminal, provoked last year's devastating NATO bombings for his brutal repression in Kosovo, and through it all, managed to survive. But now he faces a surprisingly strong challenge in a presidential election scheduled for Sept. 24. The opposition's Vojislav Kostunica, a 56-year-old lawyer and member of parliament, leads Milosevic by 20 points in independent polls.
Yet only a few optimists think Milosevic is on his way out. Instead, most political observers see the election as a potentially dangerous catalyst for a new Balkan crisis that could involve the U.S. and its allies in another violent confrontation with the Serbs.
Milosevic called the vote after ramming through constitutional amendments in July. The new law allows him to run for reelection in a direct vote rather than retire by 2001, as the old rules required. But now, to win, it appears that Milosevic will have to commit massive fraud. That could spark public protests in Serbia--the larger of two republics remaining in the Yugoslav federation--and a brutal crackdown on the opposition in response.
"CRITICAL PERIOD." Just as bad, Milosevic may be tempted to provoke a conflict with Montenegro, the tiny Yugoslav republic that has defied Belgrade by introducing democratic reforms and opposing Serbia's war in Kosovo. Civil strife inside Montenegro, where a third of the population still backs Milosevic, or a skirmish on the Serb-Montenegrin border could give Milosevic a reason to declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections.
The Montenegrins are bracing for a confrontation. Even if Milosevic does not provoke an incident, Montenegro President Milo Djukanovic has called on his citizens to boycott the election because Milosevic's constitutional amendments diminish Montenegro's power in the federation. "We will not accept the results" if Milosevic wins, says Montenegrin Foreign Affairs Minister Branko Lukovac. "We will certainly enter the critical period of confronting Milosevic." Lukovac fears Milosevic will order the army to seal Montenegro's border to keep it from importing essential goods. If that happens, Lukovac says, Montenegro's 12,000-strong police force--equipped with armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and light weapons--will fight. While they're no match in firepower, Djukanovic's forces may have an edge in Montenegro's mountainous terrain.
CORNERED. Such a conflict could easily spread into a broader Balkan war, a worrying prospect for the U.S. A senior Clinton Administration official says the U.S. and NATO allies have consulted about possible responses to a Milosevic move. NATO has 40,000 troops stationed in Kosovo. And the U.S. Navy is planning exercises in the Adriatic Sea the weekend of Yugoslavia's election. "The fear is that Milosevic will move to strengthen his hand at home, in the belief that he can do so because the U.S. is preoccupied with its own elections," says Ivo H. Daalder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Because of his indictment in The Hague for war crimes, Milosevic has few options but to hold on to power. He has told supporters that he must win more than 50% of the vote on Sept. 24, so he can avoid a run-off. It will be up to the Serbian people to decide whether or not they accept the result.