All across Belgrade the stickers say it: he's finished. But will he read them?

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The Independent Online

"Gotov je" read the stickers that are plastered everywhere across the centre of Belgrade. He's finished.

"Gotov je" read the stickers that are plastered everywhere across the centre of Belgrade. He's finished.

After last night's dramatic concession by the government electoral commission that Slobodan Milosevic had been beaten in Sunday's election it is now a matter of seeing if and how the phrase can move from neat slogan to tangible reality.

Even as the West piled on the sound-bite pressure for Mr Milosevic to admit defeat yesterday and as the Nato secretary-general, Lord Robertson, ordered increased security in the region because of concerns over the spread of tension, the regime in Belgrade was making plans for another shot at the title for Mr Milosevic.

Nearly three days after the vote, the first official word of a result came from the presenter of state television's main evening news bulletin: Vojislav Kostunica had won - but not by enough. It was a sensational admission of defeat, but with classic Balkan slipperiness, Mr Milosevic had moved to buy himself some time while defusing a powder-keg situation on the streets. The opposition leader, Zoran Djindjic, reacted with predictable fury: "We are dealing with a big fraud and falsifying of results."

The opposition had published its own figures yesterday which stated that, with 97.5 per cent of the vote counted, MrKostunica, the main opposition candidate, won by almost 20 percentage points - 54.6 to Mr Milosevic's 35 per cent.

As it sank in that an historic electoral victory was being snatched from the opposition's grasp, the celebratory mood of people on the streets turned to anger. This means that these are days of both fear and hope.

The fear is understandable, with a widespread concern that in the build-up to a run-off vote, Mr Milosevic could yet unleash mayhem to keep in power. "Milosevic is fighting for his life. That's why I'm not optimistic," said Tijana, a 19-year-old biochemistry student. "People are scared - many are very scared. They know Milosevic can't win but he won't give up."

Ljubica Markovic, director of the independent Beta news agency, said that the regime faces a no-win situation. If it accepts that the opposition has won, it is finished. But if it steals votes, that would be difficult too - the popular anger would be so great. This fear is not as big as it was before because people understand they have nothing left to lose.

A dozen well-known Serbs were asked by the Nedeljni Telegraf whether they were frightened of what would happen next. All except one answered no. The writer Mirjana Bobic-Mojsilovic said: "Many of us, including me, do not believe that things could be any worse than they already are."

Even Mr Milosevic's electoral kleptomania may be difficult to sustain on such a large scale. In the words of one analyst, "he can steal a few thousand but a million votes is too big a number". Things are made more difficult, too, because of the regime's hesitations. The prolonged count meant that the opposition's detailed figures were increasingly impossible to dismiss.

The sense of finality is, however, everywhere. The only more-or-less independent television which can still be received in Belgrade, TV Pancevo - based just north of Belgrade - has in recent dayshas repeatedly broadcast a documentary on the bloody end of the Russian tsars. Some Belgraders interpret the programming as an oblique hint to the Milosevic clan: get out, before it is too late.

If the edifice collapses from the inside, some believe in the ultimate miracle - that Serbia might even get away without bloodshed.

Srbijanka Turajlic, sacked as a university lecturer last year because of her resistance to the regime, said that "the sweet victory of Sunday night was even better than we dreamed of". She added: "In order to use force, you have to have enough people behind you. But he can no longer be sure even of the army and the police."

Even Mr Milosevic's brother, Borislav, the Yugoslav ambassador to Moscow, seemed to be sending his brother the gentlest of hints when he declared: "Hang on to power by any means? Why? Is he a monster? I don't see such an outcome."

Not all Serbs would agree.