Orthodox church tells Milosevic to hand over presidency to rival

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The Independent Online

The mighty political edifice that is the regime of Slobodan Milosevic suffered a further blow yesterday when the Serb Orthodox Church, which for many years provided political comfort for the regime, announced that Vojislav Kostunica, the challenger for the presidency, is the "elected president" of Yugoslavia.

The mighty political edifice that is the regime of Slobodan Milosevic suffered a further blow yesterday when the Serb Orthodox Church, which for many years provided political comfort for the regime, announced that Vojislav Kostunica, the challenger for the presidency, is the "elected president" of Yugoslavia.

The statement by Patriarch Pavle, head of the church, is devastating for the government, which insists the outcome of the election is still unclear.

The opposition's figures, collated from electoral returns agreed with representatives of Mr Milosevic's party, show that Mr Kostunica has 52 per cent of the vote, well ahead of Mr Milosevic's 35 per cent. The electoral commission's latest and "final" figures claim that Mr Kostunica just failed to gain an absolute majority, with 48.96 per cent, while Milosevic gained 38.6 per cent. This means that a run-off is needed. "Second electoral round on 8 October", the main headline in the government daily Politika bluntly declared yesterday. The opposition is determined not to allow the second round to go ahead.

There are plenty of signs that traditional supporters of the regime are peeling off as fast as they can. Zoran Zizic, deputy leader of the Socialist National Party, the traditionally pro-Milosevic party in Montenegro, confirmed that his party was considering its options. "When we have definitive results from all the elections, we will make a decision about who we'll work with in the new parliament," he said. The defection of the SNP would be a disastrous blow for Mr Milosevic's Socialist Party, which would thus lose its parliamentary majority.

Vojislav Seselj, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the far-right Radical Party which is part of the government coalition, added to Mr Milosevic's difficulties by suggesting that he, too, was ready to jump ship - to form a coalition with Vuk Draskovic, another opposition leader. Internationally, too, traditional supporters of Belgrade seemed wary. Moscow spoke of the need to recognise "legitimate election results", which seemed as heavy a hint as can be diplomatically imagined. The former Yugoslav prime minister Milan Panic, who was forced out of office after quarrelling with Mr Milosevic, said he was a "wounded animal".

The opposition seemed divided about how to react to the regime's insistence on holding a second round of elections. Zoran Djindjic, campaign manager of Mr Kostunica, called for demonstrations and a possible general strike. Mr Kostunica wantslegal challenges only.

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