Milosevic defies church over election

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The Independent Online

Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has defied calls from the influential Serbian Orthodox Church to stand down by confirming he will stand in an election runoff.

Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has defied calls from the influential Serbian Orthodox Church to stand down by confirming he will stand in an election runoff.

The church said it recognized Milosevic's opponent, Vojislav Kostunica, as Yugoslavia's new president-elect, and urged him to take control of the country in a peaceful way.

But Milosovic pressed ahead with plans for the October 8 runoff, despite opposition claims that Kostunica won the election outright.

He summoned his closest Socialist Party associates to a meeting, then announced he would focus on the second round.

Milosevic also praised the "overwhelming" majority which his neo-communist coalition won in the vote for the federal parliament, saying this assures "the continuation of the policies of peace, defense, freedom of the country and enhanced economic and social development."

The church holds no direct political power, but its dictates hold great moral sway in a population which recognizes it as a pillar of rectitude in a corrupt society.

It appealed to Kostunica and his camp to "take over the helm of the state, its parliament and municipalities, in as peacefully and as dignified a manner" as possible.

The statement came the morning after more than 200,000 joyful Milosevic opponents swarmed the capital's downtown district, waving banners and chanting: "He's finished."

The biggest demonstration ever against Milosevic completely blocked Belgrade's main streets around Republic Square. Much of the downtown area teemed with people.

The opposition threatened widespread "civil disobedience" as means to pressure Milosevic to step down after his government released final election figures showing neither candidate won a majority - the requirement for an outright victory.

Kostunica finished first in Sunday's elections with 48.96 percent to 38.62 percent for Milosevic, the State Election Commission said.

That would require a runoff.

"Milosevic cannot resort to violence ... look how many people took to the streets - no one in this country has the power nor dares give orders against these people," Milan Protic of the opposition said.

"I believe no one in the police or army is prepared to give his life for a man who lost the elections."

An opposition member of the electoral commission said the head of the body presented the 13 members with the results without allowing them to inspect the returns.

Sinisa Nikolic said 300 of the more than 10,000 polling stations never reported, and he accused the commission of reducing the overall total by 600,000 votes.

Another opposition leader, Goran Svilanovic, said anti-Milosevic forces "will try to avoid violence but we will persist in our effort to protect the will of the people."

U.S. President Bill Clinton and other Western leaders have dismissed talk of a runoff.

"The government's official election commission has no credibility whatever," Clinton said.

The United States will move to lift economic sanctions against Yugoslavia and restore its rights as a U.N. member state if Kostunica is installed in Belgrade, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council.

Addressing the Belgrade crowd, Kostunica repeated that the opposition would not accept a runoff.

"If we bargained with them, we would recognize the lie instead of the truth," he said.

The victorious atmosphere at the Belgrade gathering also suggested that the pro-democracy Serbs no longer fear Milosevic's autocratic government, sensing that he may not be able to hold on much longer.

Belgrade's ally Russia, however, warned Western countries not to interfere.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Moscow: "stands firmly for the peoples of Yugoslavia to have full freedom to express their will without internal or external pressure" and urged other countries "not to allow destabilization of the situation.

"Russia won't pressure anyone in Yugoslavia. This is an internal affair of Yugoslavia."

Russia vehemently opposed the NATO-led bombing campaign against Yugoslavia last year, and has repeatedly welcomed Yugoslav officials to Moscow.

But it has shown signs of trying to distance itself from Milosevic in recent months.

A Russian election observer, Konstantin Kosachov, said the elections were "normal and democratic".

Kosachov is deputy head of the lower house of parliament's international affairs committee.

Meanwhile, Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces faction in the lower house of Russian parliament, said the government must pressure Milosevic to make the runoff fair.

"If Moscow makes no effort, the election in Yugoslavia will be falsified," Nemtsov said.

Montenegro's pro-Western government also recognized the election victory of an opposition candidate, adding to pressure on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to step down.

"The elections are finished as far as we are concerned," said Montenegro's prime minister, Filip Vujanovic.

"The will of the people cannot be manipulated."

The opposition and its presidential candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, have claimed victory in the elections, saying they have overwhelmingly beaten Milosevic and his governing coalition.

Milosevic's supporters have acknowledged Kostunica's lead, but have declared a second round of the presidential elections claiming that his challenger did not garner enough votes for outright victory. Vujanovic said: "Kostunica is the winner because he has won most of the votes in Serbia and Montenegro."

Vujanovic's government urged a boycott of the elections, citing recent constitutional changes pushed through by Milosevic, which weakened Montenegro's position in the Yugoslav federation.

The Montenegrin leadership has threatened to call an independence referendum if Milosevic is reelected, saying his hardline policies damage the republic's development and democracy reforms.

Vujanovic said he expected that - once he assumes his presidential duties - Kostunica will open talks on redefining Serb-Montenegrin relations within the federation as demanded by Montenegro.

Vujanovic added that Kostunica's victory is "the best citizens' judgment of Milosevic's loser's policies that have caused many suffering, pain and poverty"