Kostunica takes over to a warm but wary welcome into office

The New Regime
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The Independent Online

Vojislav Kostunica took charge of the levers of power in Yugoslavia yesterday after the constitutional court, which earlier in the week annulled part of the 24 September presidential election, announced a change of heart, ruling that the 56-year-old law professor had in fact won an outright victory.

Vojislav Kostunica took charge of the levers of power in Yugoslavia yesterday after the constitutional court, which earlier in the week annulled part of the 24 September presidential election, announced a change of heart, ruling that the 56-year-old law professor had in fact won an outright victory.

The decision legally clears the way for him to take office and he is likely to be sworn in to office on Monday, if not before.

Until Thursday evening, Slobodan Milosevic's regime had refused to acknowledge Mr Kostunica's election victory. But, after an hour-long meeting between the two men yesterday, an exhausted-looking Mr Milosevic appeared on television to concede defeat.

Mr Kostunica was swept to power as much by Thursday's massive popular protests as by the electoral majority that preceded them. His position was consolidated early yesterday by the Yugoslav army's silence.

There was no official announcement from the military but nor was there any sign of movement of army units. The independent news agency Beta quoted an army press service officer, Colonel Dragan Velickovic, as saying the armed forces would "not interfere in the democratic process".

Momcilo Perisic, a former army chief-of-staff and now an opposition figure, said he had contacted Yugoslavia's military leaders and they had promised not to intervene.

All morning congratulations flooded in from exultant, if slightly wary, Western governments. The messages of support came from the French, German and British leaders and from the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who addressed the former academic as "President Kostunica".

China, former ally of Mr Milosevic, broke its silence late last night to indicate its acceptance of the change of power, by saying it "respected the choice of the Yugoslav people".

At Belgrade's Federal Palace - the official seat of the president - Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, conferred Moscow's blessing in person. He congratulated Mr Kostunica on President Vladimir Putin's behalf. "I congratulated him with his success, with his victory, in the elections," Mr Ivanov said later.

Mr Putin's letter to Mr Kostunica said Russia was still on Yugoslavia's side. "Russia, as before, will firmly and steadily support the unconditional preservation of the independence and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia." He urged Mr Kostunica to "do everything to overcome the political crisis that has aggravated the already difficult consequences of external interference in the affairs of your country".

After the meeting, a relaxed looking Mr Kostunica said: "We are gradually getting back to normal and I believe the crisis is behind us." But, demonstrating his determination not to rush into the embrace of any government, the president-elect's first action was to accuse the Russian government of interfering and prolonging the crisis. "I am deeply convinced that this is the last time that representatives of the international community and friendly countries like the Russian Federation will try to resolve our internal disputes. I think the crisis and arguments about our election results were unnecessary."

Shortly after the Russian intervention, the Socialist People's Party (SNP) of Montenegro, a sister party of Mr Milosevic's Socialist Party, also congratulated Mr Kostunica on his victory. Mr Kostunica's 18-party coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, plans to invite the SNP to form a new federal government. Their combined seats would give the coalition a comfortable majority in the 138-member parliament.

SNP MPs are expected to arrive in Belgrade today, when the inaugural session of the newly elected federal parliament is likely to be held. The parliament comprises representatives from both Serbia and Montenegro.

By last night, 200,000 people, some of whom had spent the previous day storming the federal parliament building, had massed in front of it hoping to witness the inauguration of Mr Kostunica. However, his personal secretary, Svetlana Stojanovic, put out word that the ceremony would be postponed until he could reconvene parliament.

The speaker of the Serbian parliament, so far dominated by Mr Milosevic's coalition, said the assembly would recognise Mr Kostunica as the president. The letter to Mr Kostunica from Dragan Tomic, one of Mr Milosevic's closest allies, said: "To the President of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I inform you that... having in mind the importance of an unhindered work of state institutions, I called the parliament session for Monday." Mr Tomic wrote that the session would include "a statement about your effective election as Yugoslav President".

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