Beaten but unbowed, Slobodan Milosevic once again plays the despot of the Balkans

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Every time that he has faced challenges in the past, the Serb leader has somehow survived - bruised, but still displaying his sphinx-like half-smile - to fight another day.

Every time that he has faced challenges in the past, the Serb leader has somehow survived - bruised, but still displaying his sphinx-like half-smile - to fight another day.

Yesterday, with the walls of his blood-stained regime crumbling around him, Slobodan Milosevic was in no mood to concede defeat as the results came pouring in during the pre-dawn hours. But the news was devastating for the man who has personally directed the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since the Second World War. He had even lost control of his hometown, Pozarevac, where he and his wife, Mira Markovic, launched their uniquely Balkan political partnership so many years ago.

His instinct, as ever, was to stonewall, and as morning broke over an expectant Belgrade he sent Nikola Sainovic, who like his leader has a war crimes indictment hanging over his head, to announce to the media that their president of the past 13 years had triumphed yet again over "the enemies of the Serbian people".

Sainovic brazened it out in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He doubted there would even be a need for a run-off vote - required if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent - because he said, to the incredulity of those gathered around him, "our candidate is leading".

In true Alice in Wonderland fashion he maintained that Mr Milosevic was leading by 44 per cent while Vojislav Kostunica had 41 per cent - contradicting the figures being posted on the ruling party's web site, which showed Kostunica leading with 44 per cent to 41 per cent for Mr Milosevic with 20 per cent of the vote counted. And as the bad news continued to pour in all day, the stonewalling continued.

Theoretically, one can see the latest dramas in Yugoslavia as just another example of a scenario that we have seen many times before. Mr Milosevic seems fatally weakened; he pulls an astonishing rabbit out of the hat; then, within a few months, everybody has forgotten that his position was ever under threat.

It still seems a fair bet that Mr Milosevic will produce one more rabbit - bedraggled and surprising in equal measure - before the bloody game ends. Equally, however, the cards are now stacked against him as they never have been before. Today, for the first time in a decade, many traditional Milosevic loyalists are beginning to wonder how and when they should jump ship.

One of the great Western misunderstandings of recent years has been the belief that Mr Milosevic owed power only to election fraud. Certainly, he has stolen votes; certainly, he has denied opposition election victories; but the other bitter truth about Serbia is that millions of Serbs have remained ready to vote for him for many reasons ranging from doggedness to apathy to fear of upheaval - compounded by an often justified contempt for the venal and divided opposition. Mr Milosevic's control of the media meant that alternative truths were scarcely heard. Even when Serbs had access to the truth - via the small but brave independent press, or via satellite television - many refused to believe what they heard, about Serb crimes in Bosnia or Kosovo, for example. Instead, they continued to see themselves as victims of an international conspiracy. Optimists may hope that the result of Sunday's election - undoubtedly an opposition victory, whatever the government may say - will be the beginning of the end of this poisonous self-delusion.

One can focus, as the United States did yesterday, on the irregularities of the polling process itself. But those irregularities, though real, did not prevent the final election result. There is little reason to doubt the opposition's election figures, which confirm what the opinion polls had suggested: a clear victory for Mr Milosevic's challenger, Mr Kostunica. In that sense, despite everything, the elections turned out "fair". It is the official admission of the result - not the flaws in the process - which matters most.

Mr Kostunica does not look set to be the world's favourite democrat. He is not a Vaclav Havel who will preach tolerance and help everybody to live happily ever after. His own track record as a nationalist is clear. He does, however, offer the possibility that Serbia can break its own brutalist mould of the past 10 years, so that some hope of sanity can return.

The fact that the regime still refuses to recognise Mr Kostunica's victory makes it more likely that we will see repression and bloodshed before the change finally comes. But the non-recognition of an obvious truth - after 13 years, Serbs have had enough of the man who they once believed to be their saviour - does not change the likely end result. For Mr Milosevic, the clock is ticking.

Although Serbs themselves have often been reluctant to admit it, the reason why Mr Milosevic is still in power is because too few people cared enough to get him out. In Leipzig, Prague, and Bucharest in 1989, crowds dislodged immovable regimes, each of which was ready to use force to stay in power. The threat or use of force merely redoubled the crowds anger and defiance. At a certain point, the instrument of repression gave way under its own weight; rats started to defect from the sinking ship, as fast as their corrupt little legs could carry them. Mr Milosevic and his closest comrades must fear that that moment is now arriving for them, too.

None of which means that the Milosevic era is already over, as everybody in Serbia knows from past experience. In winter 1996-97, Mr Milosevic faced huge street protests which pushed him to the political brink. On New Year's Eve, standing amidst crowds packed so tightly into the city centre that none of us could move, I was convinced that his time was over; Serb friends were equally confident. When the regime admitted opposition victories in local elections which Mr Milosevic had previously denied, that seemed the first crack in the edifice, before a final collapse of the regime. In reality, Mr Milosevic then sat on his hands, allowed the protesters to get bored - and waited for the opposition to knife each other in the back and front, which they quickly did. Within months, Mr Milosevic's position was again strong.

To some extent, the future of Serbia will be decided in the days and weeks to come in smoky offices, and in endless mobile phone calls, as deals are done, broken, and re-made. Above all, however, the future will be decided on Serbia's streets - by the crowds, or, if Mr Milosevic is very fortunate, by the lack of them.