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Milosevic Makes Concession By Validating Election Results

By Jonanthan C. Randal
The Washington Post
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic made a major concession Tuesday in his eight-week struggle with his political opponents, validating disputed election returns that would give the opposition control of Belgrade's city government and could seriously weaken his 9-year-old grip on power.

Allies and foes alike cautioned, however, against declaring an end to the standoff between Milosevic and an opposition movement that has staged daily protests since the Serbian leader annulled its victories in more than a dozen municipal elections held on Nov. 17.

Belgrade's municipal electoral commission Tuesday validated what were described as preliminary election results that gave control of the capital's city council to the opposition coalition known as Together. The ruling overturned annulments by courts controlled by Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party and its allies, which had ruled that the elections were tainted by irregularities.

In addition, the electoral panel in Nis, a city of 200,000 people, backed down Tuesday from its refusal to implement an order restoring the opposition's victory there.

The government's reversal would give Together 60 of 110 seats on Belgrade's powerful city council, fulfilling a key opposition demand and laying the groundwork for a more-serious challenge to Milosevic in national elections later this year. But politicians and observers here, citing splits within the Milosevic camp, refused to rule out a last-minute effort by hard-liners to thwart the opposition.

Underscoring that possibility, an official Tanjug news-agency dispatch read on state and private television Tuesday quoted legal experts who questioned the legality of using administrative electoral commissions to annul court decisions. The electoral commission's findings can be appealed within 48 hours.

Skeptical opposition leaders welcomed the decisions as "reasonable first steps" but vowed to continue daily protest marches until victories in all 14 disputed municipalities are formally recognized and their representatives have taken up their official duties.

Vuk Draskovic, one of the coalition's three leaders, said that only then would the opposition agree to meet government officials to "start a democratic dialogue on freeing the (state-controlled) media" before parliamentary and presidential elections later this year and establishing the "responsibility of those who have stolen our votes and those who have ordered people beaten" in demonstrations.

Because municipal councils in Serbia do not have significant financial resources, they are largely dependent on institutions controlled by Milosevic. But the councils have the power to investigate corruption and run their own radio and television stations.

That quasi-monopoly over the local media has long helped cement Milosevic's grip on power, and the loss of it in key cities - particularly Belgrade - will weaken him and bolster his opponents in elections later this year. In addition, analysts say, the fact that Milosevic appears to have lost a key battle with the opposition could deal him the most telling blow in the coming vote.

Independent commentator Zarko Kovac echoed widespread sentiment by predicting that Milosevic "will now retreat slowly," backing down "completely" but "step by step" to save what remains of his power.

As the crisis has worn on, Milosevic has vacillated between moderate and hard-liners in his ruling coalition. Friday night, for example, the Socialist Party and the Yugoslav United Left - a coalition partner led by Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic - were reported to have decided to try to hold onto the disputed municipalities. On Saturday, however, moderates announced just the contrary, and two government ministers issued an official communique pledging to "respect the will of the people" after meeting student leaders.

Milosevic himself was reported to have chaired a key meeting Sunday overriding infuriated hard-liners angered by the moderates' desire to compromise.

It was New Democracy, a small, moderate, pro-business party in Milosevic's ruling coalition, that initiated the formal move Monday night to restore Together's Belgrade victory. A New Democracy spokesman said the party had acted to prevent hard-liners from trying to hang onto the Belgrade city council in defiance of the the findings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and he privately expressed pleasure that the electoral commission had voted 10 to 1 in favor of reinstating the results of the Nov. 17 vote.

Asked if the confusion within the Milosevic coalition was now ended, a spokesman for the New Democracy party replied: "Unfortunately not."