Only the Serbs can make Milosevic pay for his crimes

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"You won the election, but I won the count." Thus, in the late 1970s, the former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza to his critics. And thus, equally brazen, seems certain to be the response of Slobodan Milosevic as he attempts to preserve a rule that has brought a decade of blood and misery to his country and the Balkan region. Two things may be said amid the confusion: Mr Milosevic appears to have been soundly, perhaps overwhelmingly, defeated in Sunday's presidential election in Yugoslavia. But it is equally clear that the regime intends to concoct a "victory" by whatever means are required. If the worst comes to the worst, those means will be violent. So how should the West react?

"You won the election, but I won the count." Thus, in the late 1970s, the former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza to his critics. And thus, equally brazen, seems certain to be the response of Slobodan Milosevic as he attempts to preserve a rule that has brought a decade of blood and misery to his country and the Balkan region. Two things may be said amid the confusion: Mr Milosevic appears to have been soundly, perhaps overwhelmingly, defeated in Sunday's presidential election in Yugoslavia. But it is equally clear that the regime intends to concoct a "victory" by whatever means are required. If the worst comes to the worst, those means will be violent. So how should the West react?

So far, the approach has been about right. Before the vote, Nato members offered little direct support to Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition candidate and apparent winner of the election, correctly reasoning that to have done so would have played into Mr Milosevic's hands, allowing him to depict Mr Kostunica as a traitorous stooge of the countries that 15 months ago were raining bombs on Belgrade. Equally though, no Serb can now fail to understand that the replacement of an indicted war criminal by a democratically elected successor would unlock Western aid, end the country's diplomatic isolation and hasten its return to the European fold.

At this point, some might like to go further, and permit Mr Milosevic to take himself, his family and his assets into exile without threat of arrest on war-crimes charges, in return for surrendering power peacefully. This argument was floated by Washington during the summer, and has its points. It must however be rejected. Not only would such an amnesty make a mockery of the war-crimes tribunal in the Hague as it prosecutes lesser offenders, and undercut the emerging "Pinochet doctrine" whereby no ruler is above international law. It would also once more spare the Serbs from leaving their Balkan fantasy world to confront reality.

However perilous, this crisis is one for Serbs alone to resolve. They know that Yugoslavia has reached a dead end from which it cannot escape while Mr Milosevic is around. He will twist and turn; the suspense may continue until a run-off vote on 8 October. Ultimately his fate will be determined by the military, who must decide whether to continue backing him in defiance of the popular will. Yugoslavia's long nightmare is unlikely to be ended by a tyrant's sudden conversion to the virtues of the untampered ballot box.

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