Milosevic in crucial test of popularity: President seeks backing as Serbian voters have chance to influence conflict in Bosnia and protest at crippling sanctions

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The Independent Online
SERBS trudged to the polls for the third time in three years yesterday to test the popularity of President Slobodan Milosevic and his ruling Socialists, which hangs on a knife edge.

In Belgrade's industrial suburb of Rakovica the ultra-nationalist Radicals led by Vojislav Seselj grabbed most votes last time. This time, other opposition parties look set to win a bigger share of the ballot among younger Serbs weary of hyperinflation, minute salaries and seemingly endless war in Bosnia.

'If the Socialists win there will be general starvation within six months,' said Slobodan Vracar, a restaurant manager. 'How can I bring up a family on five Deutschmarks a month? I only fear the pensioners will all vote for Milosevic. They went through the Second World War and believe the government will keep a new war from coming to Serbia.'

'Belgrade will vote for the opposition,' predicted Vladamir Varga, a student voting for the first time. 'I am voting against nationalism as it offers no perspective for young people.'

But several old people who overheard this encounter outside the polling station shook their heads and hurled abuse. 'The opposition parties are all paid for by the West,' shouted Osman, a Milosevic supporter. 'The sanctions are all the fault of Germany and Austria. Serbia is guilty of nothing.'

'Germany is stirring all this up,' agreed Bozidar Golubovic. 'As soon as the Berlin Wall came down it was nothing but disaster.' Another old man snapped: 'Who I voted for is a military secret.'

Veselin Veslinovic sauntered out of the booth in olive fatigues embellished with the maroon insignia of a paramilitary unit known as the White Eagles. 'I am dressed in this uniform because I kill Croats,' he smirked. 'I am for fascism,' he added, fishing out of his pocket the identity card of one Croat he claimed he had killed. 'Serbia needs discipline - a clean state. Only an ethnically clean state can defend itself.'

A dismal showing by the Socialists will plunge Serbia into a dramatic political crisis on the eve of what could turn out to be a crucial new round of negotiations in Geneva between Muslims, Serbs and Croats on ending the war in Bosnia.

While Mr Milosevic has not ruled out cohabiting with a team of non-Socialist ministers, the savage animosity which has grown up between the President and several opposition leaders makes this prospect unlikely. Earlier this year the police arrested and beat up one opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, and his wife, Danica, after they attempted to storm the Serbian parliament with an excitable group of supporters.

Many Western diplomats are convinced that Mr Milosevic will not allow the opposition to take office no matter how many votes they win. Some say he will declare a state of emergency, others that this will not be necessary as the ballot will be rigged.

The opposition parties would insist on slashing the extensive powers enjoyed by President Milo sevic as soon as they took office. They would also prise open the secret files lodged in the interior and defence ministries on the wars in Croatia and Bosnia - a move that would shed an interesting light on Mr Milosevic's claim that he played no direct role in fomenting the wars which have raged in the former Yugoslavia.

One of the principal beneficiaries of the Socialists' unpopularity will be Zoran Djindjic, the youthful leader of the once obscure Democratic Party. Mr Djindjic mouths all the right nationalist slogans but at the same time cultivates a squeaky- clean image. A big chunk of Serbia's impoverished middle class see this somewhat prissy-looking man as their saviour and in the streets of Belgrade many people have been sporting the Democrats' blue badge emblazoned with the single word 'honesty'.

In spite of massive publicity on state television and the plastering of Belgrade with posters, few people said they would vote for Zeljko Raz njatovic, 'Arkan', the paramilitary- turned-politician who was widely suspected of committing atrocities in Bosnia and of running some organised crime in Serbia. Arkan and his fellow ultra-nationalist, Mr Seselj, have weakened their impact by constantly trading insults with each other.

In one televised election debate, Arkan accused Mr Seselj of stuffing himself with so much roast lamb during the war in Bosnia that he put on 22kg in weight. 'I may have put on 22kg but you and your criminals have stolen at least DM22m from Bosnia,' Mr Seselj retorted.

(Photograph omitted)