Milosevic concedes; Kostunica poised to take oath

Saturday, October 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ With the army behind him and Slobodan Milosevic wishing him well, Vojislav Kostunica appeared free to take his presidential oath and begin leading Yugoslavia out of a decade of war and turmoil and into a welcoming Europe.

The president-elect focused Saturday on efforts to build a new democracy in this beleaguered Balkan country, sidestepping questions about Milosevic's future plans.

``For now, it is more than enough that Milosevic congratulated me,'' Kostunica said. ``Difficult times are behind us but the days ahead also hold many trials.''

Kostunica's comments came after talks with Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, the first Western official who arrived here to congratulate and offer the new Yugoslav president support.

Papandreou expressed his admiration for the peaceful transition that the Yugoslavs accomplished and said it was now time for Europe to respond by lifting economic sanctions. The European Union may do so as early as Monday.

``The priority today is to the democratic transition in Yugoslavia, to help this country consolidate its democracy,'' Papandreou said.

Kostunica's official inauguration was scheduled to follow a session of the newly elected Yugoslav parliament Saturday in Belgrade's modernistic Sava Center, after the parliament building was gutted and ransacked in riots Thursday that toppled Milosevic.

The Yugoslav strongman addressed the nation's people in a televised speech late Friday, conceding he had lost Sept. 24 presidential elections.

``I congratulate Mr. Kostunica on his electoral victory and I wish much success to all citizens of Yugoslavia,'' Milosevic said.

The speech signaled the Yugoslav president has abandoned hopes of preventing Kostunica from being sworn into office.

Hours afterward, the army's chief of staff, Nebojsa Pavkovic, also congratulated Kostunica, and indicated the military would obey the new political authority. Yugoslavia's high court had also named Kostunica the election winner and powerful Yugoslav ally Russia offered its support.

In his speech, Milosevic said he wanted to take a break, before restarting an active political life. As an indicted war criminal, he has little chance of seeking asylum abroad and has no choice but to try to reach an accommodation with the new government.

``I intend to rest a bit and spend some more time with my family and especially with my grandson, Marko, and after that to help my party gain force and contribute to future prosperity,'' he said.

But the strongman's son, Marko Milosevic, his wife Zorica and son Marko Jr., on Saturday boarded a Yugoslav Airlines flight to Moscow, the independent Beta news agency reported.

Milosevic's son is believed to have an extensive business empire stretching out of the Milosevic family hometown of Pozarevac.

The concession by Milosevic prompted bursts of gunfire and wild honking of car horns in the streets of Belgrade, where tens of thousands kept up celebrations that began Thursday in the wake of a tumultuous uprising against 13 year's of Milosevic's autocratic rule.

Norway's foreign minister, Thorbjoern Jagland, was due to follow in his Greek counterpart's footsteps and arrive in Belgrade later Saturday, in a further show of support for Kostunica.

Further confirming Kostunica's position, the speaker of the Serbian parliament, Dragan Tomic, addressed Kostunica as president in a letter Friday _ the first such recognition by a high official from Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia.

Another anti-Milosevic leader, Zoran Djindjic, although initially distrustful of the president's remarks, said Saturday that Milosevic no longer had any control over the police or army troops.

``We can breathe a sigh or relief now,'' Djindjic told independent B2-92 radio, adding that his camp had been contacted by top ranks and brigade officials to that effect.

Milosevic is blamed by the West for starting _ and then losing _ four Balkan wars that broke out in the last decade when parts of Yugoslavia began to seek independence. Those conflicts were marked by horrific acts of violence against civilians, which prompted Western governments to impose sanctions and isolate Belgrade.

Some of those controls were eased after Milosevic signed the 1995 agreement to end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, other sanctions were imposed again in 1998 after Milosevic launched a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Pavkovic, a former Milosevic crony, expressed confidence that Kostunica will help ``overcome all the remaining problems in a civilized way and return the country to normalcy,'' the Tanjug news agency reported. He also pledged that the army will carry its duties according to the constitution.

In recent days, both the United States and the European Union have said they will begin to lift sanctions as the new democratic administration takes the reins.

``This is great news,'' Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said about Kostunica's apparent victory, calling it ``very, very important.''

But returning Yugoslavia to normal footing may pose its own dilemmas. The sanctions and years of Balkan warfare has left the economy in ruins. Last year's 78-day NATO bombardment hammered an already creaky transportation and utility network.

Kostunica was putting together a stopgap crisis committee to try to stabilize the country. He also could come under strong Western pressure to turn over indicted war criminals.

In Greece, Milosevic's friend and alleged business associate Vladimir Bokan, 40, was shot dead early Saturday outside his luxury home in Voula, an Athens suburb, police said. Bokan had been under police investigation for money laundering and smuggling gasoline and arms. It was not immediately clear who the killers were or if the murder was linked to events in Yugoslavia.