The only hope for the Serbian opposition lies in uniting against Milosevic

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The Independent Online

This is a crucial week for the Balkans. Sunday's elections in Belgrade could prove historic. The opinion polls are running strongly against Slobodan Milosevic: they are giving his main challenger, Vojislav Kostunica, around twice as much support as the Yugoslav president himself enjoys. Theoretically, this could be the endgame.

This is a crucial week for the Balkans. Sunday's elections in Belgrade could prove historic. The opinion polls are running strongly against Slobodan Milosevic: they are giving his main challenger, Vojislav Kostunica, around twice as much support as the Yugoslav president himself enjoys. Theoretically, this could be the endgame.

There are, however, many ifs and buts. The chances of an opposition victory, followed by a peaceful handover of power, are small. Partly, that is because support for Mr Kostunica is far from united, even now. The bitter quarrels that have marked Serb opposition politics in recent years have created an almost bottomless well of apathy among ordinary voters. Again and again, opposition leaders have held rallies at which they triumphantly proclaim that Mr Milosevic will be out within a few days or weeks. And, of course, he never is. Mr Kostunica was the latest in a long line, when he told crowds at a weekend rally: "Thanks to your great belief in change, we shall win."

Many opposition supporters believe that even if a clear majority does vote for Mr Kostunica, that victory will not be reflected in the official results. The possibilities of ballot-rigging are many, and Mr Milosevic has been happy to go down that road before. Accusations that Mr Milosevic is "preparing to steal the elections" are widespread among his critics.

Thus, there is a curious implied agreement between government and opposition about the expected official outcome on Sunday. The regime declares that Mr Milosevic will defeat the opposition's "hardcore separatists and terrorists"; the opposition, in turn, says that Mr Milosevic's "bullies, liars and thieves" will steal votes in order to proclaim a fake victory. The real question, therefore, is not what happens on Sunday but what comes after. In cities across eastern Europe in 1989, crowds defied guns and tanks to get rid of unwanted dictators. It is still unclear whether Serb crowds will show the same determination - or whether the inevitable protests after the vote will give way to mere background-noise bellyaching.

This is where the strength and unity of the opposition will play a crucial role. The regime has, in recent weeks and months, clamped down hard on the opposition, especially the student-led Otpor ("Resistance"). Beatings-up and arrests are commonplace. Supporters of the opposition must overcome both apathy and fear.

If the lack of unity in the Serb opposition is partly responsible for the failure to oust Mr Milosevic, the West has done its bit. With a few absurd exceptions - like Asphalt for Democracy, where the EU helps to repair roads in cities administered by opponents of Milosevic - there has been little attempt to persuade Serbs that the argument is with the regime, not with ordinary Serbs. In Kosovo, innocent Serbs are in daily danger; the UN does little to protect them. A Serb journalist, Miroslav Filipovic, has been jailed for seven years for alleged espionage - in reality, for telling the truth; the West has kept almost silent, instead of defending a courageous Serb.

Yugoslavia today is highly unstable - not least because, in the event of a Milosevic victory, the little reformist republic of Montenegro may yet secede. Serbs need to know that, if they press for democracy, Yugoslavia can receive the political and economic help that it desperately needs. For the moment, there is too little sign of that.

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