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West Tells Milosevic to Step Down After Opposition Win

By Keith B. Richburg

Western powers proclaimed an opposition victory Monday in Yugoslavia’s Sunday elections and pressed President Slobodan Milosevic to accept his defeat by opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica.

Although ballot counting is still underway, no official results have been announced and few impartial observers were allowed to witness the process, a flurry of statements from Western capitals claimed that Kostunica had achieved an insurmountable lead and that any attempt by Milosevic to declare victory and remain in power would be considered a fraud.

“It is increasingly apparent that the opposition prevailed and any claims to the contrary by Milosevic are false,” White House spokesman Jake Siewert said. “It’s clear that the people of Serbia want democratic change and we hope that the government respects their wishes.”

“Nothing will be the same as before; something has started that will not stop,” said French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, speaking here to reporters on behalf of the European Union. “By no means can President Slobodan Milosevic declare himself the winner.”

From Brighton, England, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said: “All the reliable evidence we have suggests the people voted Milosevic out by a massive majority.” He added, “Today, Milosevic is a beaten, broken-backed president.”

State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher noted that Milosevic did not permit international observers to monitor the voting. He and other U.S. officials based their claims of an opposition landslide on unofficial tallies provided by opposition observers stationed inside polling places.

Dominique Moisi, a political analyst with the French Institute of International Relations, said the statements declaring an opposition victory were warranted because the Yugoslav government’s own count showed the race to be close, which most Western observers say signifies Milosevic actually is far behind. “To be so close, it means the real gap is huge,” Moisi said. “...In spite of huge cheating by the government, it was not enough.”

The language used by U.S. and European leaders Monday, all but declaring Kostunica the winner, seemed based mainly on Western leaders’ concerted desire to be rid of the man they contend helped plunge the Balkans into three wars, prompting the first intervention by North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a foreign conflict.

The aim of the chorus of statements seems to be to create a climate in which it becomes more difficult for Milosevic to attempt to retain power through rigging, and allows any result that keeps him in place to be discounted.

“The messages are meant to deter Milosevic from resorting to force,” Moisi said. “They are saying, if you do remain in power, we know you cheated.”

If the main target of Monday’s verbal exercise is Milosevic, another seems to be the Yugoslav people, following preelection promises of a lifting of economic sanctions against Belgrade and generous aid to repair damage from last year’s NATO bombing.

“A victory for democracy would lead to a radical revision of EU policy,” Vedrine said here in Paris. “If Slobodan Milosevic admits his defeat, we Europeans and Americans will respect the commitments we have made.”