End of Milosevic era hailed in Serbian elections

First official results confirmed on Sunday that reformers humiliated Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialists in Serbia’s parliamentary election in a triumph hailed as the end of the Milosevic era.

Based on returns from about a third of polling stations, the pro-democracy alliance backing new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica won 65 percent of the vote in Saturday’s election, the Electoral Commission said.

This would give the 18-party DOS alliance 177 out of the 250 seats in parliament and a free hand to form the new Serbian government, where true power resides in Yugoslavia.

“This was the most convincing victory in the history of elections in Serbia and Yugoslavia,” said Zoran Lucic of the independent CESID monitoring group. The vote has also been hailed as the freest ever held in a country where fraud has been rife.

The defeated Socialists, who provided former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic with his power base for a decade, were on course to win just 38 seats, with a share of the vote that collapsed to 14 percent.

After leading his countrymen through a string of bloody defeats and economic disaster in a decade of Balkan wars, Milosevic lost the Yugoslav presidential election three months ago but clung on until street protests forced him out in October.

Saturday’s vote will finally sweep all his followers from the corridors of power occupied by the Communists and their Socialist successors since World War Two.

Britain, a key combatant in the NATO bombing campaign 18 months ago that drove Serbian forces out of ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo and weakened Milosevic, was quick to welcome the Socialists’ demise.

“The Serbian people’s decision on December 23 is a final rejection of the Milosevic era,” Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said in a statement. “(Yugoslavia) is now firmly on the road to integration into the European mainstream.”

Not everything is as the West would have wished, however. The first results showed that a party founded by slain Serb warlord Arkan could win seats in the new parliament.

The powers of the Serbian government include responsibility for an 85,000-strong police force that was feared under Milosevic and for major economic, financial and social policy.

The key victor on Saturday was Zoran Djindjic, who will be Serbia’s next prime minister and share influence in the country with Kostunica, his ally but personal rival.

Djindjic said he would get down to work swiftly and build his cabinet by January 10, three days after the Orthodox celebration of Christmas.

“This is going to be the first government that will not be dealing with itself but with the interests of the citizens,” he told reporters.

Leaders of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia alliance (DOS) popped open bottles of champagne in the early hours of Sunday to celebrate their victory, but the disparate bloc faces a major test of its will to stay together.

Daunting tasks lie ahead, from rooting out corruption and stemming economic decline to keeping Yugoslavia together amid secession moves in Serbia’s tiny partner republic of Montenegro.

DOS must also deal with guerrillas in ethnic Albanian parts of Serbia, the future of the lost province of Kosovo and Western demands for Milosevic to stand trial for war crimes.

“A precondition for the rule of law is to immediately call to account the very top of the former authorities,” Nebojsa Covic, a leader of one of the DOS parties, told B-92 radio.

He condemned Milosevic and his influential wife Mira Markovic for “nationalistic bluffing work based on constant conflicts…and vampire-like profit-making from the blood of others”.

New Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic also turned up the heat on Milosevic and his cronies.

Milosevic may be fading and facing an unpleasant future, but Serb ultra-nationalism lives on at the fringes.

Vojislav Seselj’s Radicals should hold about 22 seats and in a surprise showing may just be joined by 13 followers of Arkan, the warlord whose forces sowed terror in Croatia and Bosnia wars and who was gunned down in a Belgrade hotel this year.