Yugoslav court upholds change at the top


Associated Press

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia – The Yugoslav high court today declared opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica the winner in presidential elections, boosting his drive for power after a popular uprising swept away the pillars of Slobodan Milosevic’s 13-year rule.

Milosevic, whose whereabouts have been a mystery since Thursday’s street protests, met Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and denounced the unrest.

After days of hesitation by Moscow, Ivanov expressed support for Kostunica’s victory, stripping Milosevic of his main international ally. But Ivanov suggested that Milosevic, who has been indicted on war crimes, will try to keep a role in Yugoslav politics.

“He said he intends to play a prominent role in the political life of the country,” Ivanov said.

Ivanov would not confirm the location of their meeting, but Milosevic said it took place in Belgrade.

“It was agreed that violence and destructive riots jeopardize the functioning of the state,” Milosevic said in a statement, broadcast by a TV station operated by his allies.

Such behavior “weakens the state, which is only in the interest of the country’s enemies,” he said.

Milosevic’s statement was seen in Belgrade as an indication of the Yugoslav leader’s stubborn defiance in the wake of an electoral defeat and massive uprising Thursday in which his allies in the security forces, media and the parliament seemed to melt away.

The United States, which had cheered the prospect of a Balkans without Milosevic, rejected any future role for him in Yugoslav politics. “This is something we cannot support,” said Sandy Berger, the U.S. national security adviser.

“He is still an indicted war criminal and has to be accountable, we believe, for his actions,” Berger said in an interview.

Milosevic also appeared to lose his last legal basis for keeping power.

The opposition had asked the Yugoslav Constitutional Court last week to declare Kostunica the outright winner in the Sept. 24 election. The government had acknowledged that he outpolled Milosevic in the five-candidate race but said he fell short of a majority, requiring a runoff.

Nebojsa Bakarec, a legal adviser to Kostunica, said today he received an official ruling from the court in the opposition’s favor. Efforts to contact the court were unsuccessful because the report was received after the close of business hours.

Two days earlier, the same court had reportedly invalidated parts of the elections, a move the opposition had denounced as an attempt to buy time for Milosevic.

The apparent reversal by the court, which Milosevic had packed with loyalists, may indicate that Milosevic has given up any hopes of holding onto power and instead has decided to try to carve out a role for himself in national politics.

By accepting defeat, Milosevic could prevent a split between his party and its wing in Montenegro, which has already acknowledged Kostunica as the president-elect. If the Montenegrin wing backs Kostunica, he could have enough seats to keep Milosevic allies out of the government. But if the Montenegrins stick by Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader could maintain a strong voice in government. Montenegro and the larger, dominant Serbia make up the federation of Yugoslavia.

Ivanov, carrying a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin, met earlier with Kostunica, saying he “congratulated Mr. Kostunica on his victory in the presidential elections.”

“I am convinced that we are gradually getting back to normal and I believe the crisis is behind us,” said a visibly pleased Kostunica.

The move by Russia – the last major European nation to back Kostunica – won praise from an exultant U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

“This is great news,” Albright said, giving a thumbs up. “We are very glad that Russia has now joined the rest of Europe and us in congratulating the victory of President Kostunica.”

The United States and the European Union promised economic sanctions on Serbia – the dominant republic in Yugoslavia – would be lifted once Kostunica was in place as president, and promised new aid to the country.

Meanwhile, Kostunica and his supporters continued to consolidate their control after huge crowds danced and sang in celebrations all night long, fed by the excitement of having seized Yugoslavia’s parliament and other key symbols of Milosevic’s regime.

About 200,000 people gathered in front of parliament today, hoping to watch Kostunica be inaugurated. One of their posters read: “Slobodan, are you counting your last minutes.” But Kostunica’s personal secretary, Svetlana Stojanovic, said the ceremony was postponed until he can reconvene parliament, possibly this weekend.

Worries eased about Milosevic’s launching a military counterattack. Most police commanders have joined the groundswell behind Kostunica. The private news agency Beta quoted an army press service officer, Col. Dragan Velickovic, as saying the armed forces would not “interfere in the democratic process.”

Tanjug and other state-owned media – formerly a key support of Milosevic’s regime – were broadcasting or publishing apologies today for their past support for Milosevic. Serb television occasionally flashed its logo during broadcasts with the slogan: “This is the new free Serbian television.” State-owned or past pro-Milosevic dailies issued special editions today, reflecting the change in their editorial policies.

Several hundred people from the opposition stronghold of Cacak marched down an avenue behind a brass band today. A lone traffic policemen watched from his hiding place inside the entrance to an office building.

“God forbid that they see my uniform,” said the terrified officer, who declined to identify himself.

While Russia was keen to establish ties with any new government in Yugoslavia, it also faced the question of its old ally’s future.

Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency cited Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov as saying there had been no discussion about granting asylum to Milosevic. Vladimir Yermoshin, the prime minister of Belarus – a former Soviet republic that has also been suggested as a refuge for Milosevic – said there has been no request for asylum.

Governments of the two Balkan neighbors – Bulgaria and Romania – ordered their armed forces to remain alert against any attempt by Milosevic or his allies to slip out of Yugoslavia.

“He’s trapped and a wounded animal,” said former Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic, who ran against Milosevic in 1992. “He has to be given a chance to go somewhere.”

Milosevic’s regime began teetering Wednesday when police caved in to defiant coal miners striking in central Serbia, Yugoslavia’s main republic.

After that, the movement gained stunning momentum.

A crowd Thursday – including tough miners, factory workers and farmers – stormed the parliament. They set fires, tossed portraits of Milosevic out of broken windows and chased the feared riot police away.

Soon the state television building was on fire, too. Its front door was crushed by a front-loader. Then came word that at least two police stations had also succumbed to the crowds.

Many police tossed away their clubs and shields, absorbed by joyous flag-waving crowds. Others were beaten senseless by angry, often intoxicated, young toughs. The director of Serbian state television and one of Milosevic’s closest allies, Dragoljub Milanovic, was beaten with sticks.

Tanjug said two people were killed and 65 injured in the rioting. All but 12 of the injured were treated and released from hospitals, Tanjug said.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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