Hidden files reveal extent of Kostunica landslide

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The Independent Online

We are sitting in an absolutely anonymous room, somewhere in the centre of Belgrade. A large table, a few chairs, a couple of computers. Along one wall stands a set of bookshelves, containing hundreds of white files labelled with the names of Yugoslav towns. Each file contains dozens of double A4 sheets of paper, covered with figures.

We are sitting in an absolutely anonymous room, somewhere in the centre of Belgrade. A large table, a few chairs, a couple of computers. Along one wall stands a set of bookshelves, containing hundreds of white files labelled with the names of Yugoslav towns. Each file contains dozens of double A4 sheets of paper, covered with figures.

Each of these sheets - 8,000-odd in all - has nine witnessing signatures on the last page. In short, a bureaucrat's delight. And yet these files, so unexciting to look at, are of potentially huge import. They are electoral return sheets from all over Yugoslavia, and could prove the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic - the man who wishes that those sheets of paper could literally go up in smoke.

Hardly surprising, perhaps, that Desanka Radunovic, the university mathematics lecturer who has the responsibility of looking after the return sheets, is concerned. "We are worried the police might come. They need no excuse."

These reports provide the uncontradictable evidence that Vojislav Kostunica has inflicted the first electoral humiliation on the Yugoslav leader. In Sunday's elections, Mr Kostunica gained an absolute majority with 52 per cent of the vote, half as much again as Mr Milosevic.

Opposition leaders often like to exaggerate their successes - especially in countries where the democracy is patchy, and where claims of official fraud can be asserted without fear of contradiction; every government victory is always deemed to be fake, which gives an alibi for the most hapless opposition, including Serbia's, in recent years.

These figures are, however, more than just an opposition fantasy. The ruling Socialists counter-signed the sheets at local level, as did the otheropposition parties and thegovernment-appointed head of each local commission. Put together, the lists show clearly that Mr Milosevic is - as the new opposition slogan has it - "a broken rattle". For the opposition, these papers are worth their weight in democratic gold.

Mr Milosevic's election commission has taken the same return sheets and managed to come up with a quite different result, which - should anyone accept it - means that the opposition has not won after all, but must go to a run-off. The opposition asked the federal electoral commission to sit down with it to compare the return sheets one by one, calculator in hand, to discover how the huge discrepancy - amounting to about a million votes - had happened, especially since the totals produced by competing opposition parties were almost identical to those of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS).

In Kosovo, where the security climate meant that DOS was scarcely able to check figures, there appears to have been some creative use of votes, including polling station addresses some of which, DOS alleges - with photographs to back up its claims - are no more than deserted ruins; but even adding in the votes of all the Albanians in Kosovo (who ignored the vote entirely), the government cannot gain victory. For some reason, the election commission declined the offer of comparing return sheets and went ahead with its announcement on Wednesday that there must be a second round.

For the opposition, that option is out of the question. Even though the regime has acknowledged that Mr Kostunica is ahead - in itself, an embarrassment - the delay of a run-off would mean getting caught up in Mr Milosevic's web once more.

The election commission, after first stating that Mr Kostunica had won 46 per cent compared with Mr Milosevic's 40 per cent, suddenly upped its offer on Wednesday night, arguing instead that, according to "final" figures, Mr Kostunica has gained 48.96 per cent, and that Mr Milosevic has 38.6 per cent of the vote. It was no doubt coincidence that Mr Kostunica's share of the vote still came in just a little under the magical 50 per cent mark. The message was clear enough: despite a huge rally in the centre of Belgrade on Wednesday night - when crowds filled not just the Republic Square but were also packed like sardines into all the side-streets leading into the square - the regime is still determined not to give up the prize.

When push comes to shove, Ms Radunovic believes that the return sheets she is guarding so jealously - and of which she and her colleagues have made multiple copies - are not alone enough to change the regime's mind. "[But] even if they steal these protocols from us, we're not afraid. First: we know we're right. And second, there's the crowds."

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