The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - President Clinton yesterday urged Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to "heed the call of the Serb people," honor the election of his pro-democracy challenger and step down.
Clinton said results from elections Sunday indicate that Milosevic's opponent, Vojislav Kostunica, won "an absolute majority" of the vote. In a statement, he said there was no basis for the runoff election Milosevic is maneuvering to set up, and offered to remove economic sanctions once Milosevic leaves.
"The people of Yugoslavia have spoken loud and clear in support of democratic change," Clinton said. "It is time for Mr. Milosevic to heed the call of the Serb people, step down, and allow a peaceful democratic transition to take place."
The United States has sought Milosevic's ouster since it led NATO air strikes on Belgrade last year in response to attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Earlier yesterday, before having lunch with Prime Minister Wim Kok of the Netherlands, Clinton said all NATO nations should consider lifting the sanctions if Milosevic is removed from power.
While he did not then refer to Milosevic by name, Clinton said that "it's clear the people prefer" Kostunica. When asked later whether he was calling for Milosevic to step down, Clinton told reporters, "That's what I think should happen.
"When that happens, I would strongly support immediate moves to lift the sanctions," Clinton said. "I think we should all say, in unequivocal terms, as soon as there is democratic government there, the sanctions should be lifted."
Milosevic yesterday refused to recognize Kostunica's apparent victory in Sunday's elections, saying he would move ahead with plans for an Oct. 8 runoff. The State Election Commission said Kostunica earned 48.96 percent of the vote to 38.62 percent for Milosevic, but opposition poll watchers said Kostunica won 52.54 percent of the vote, compared with 32.01 percent for Milosevic.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said a runoff is not necessary. "It's an issue of who won, and Dr. Kostunica won this election," Reeker said.
Clinton said he is more inclined to believe the opposition's results because the Serb Orthodox Church has recognized Kostunica as the new president. He also noted that the election commission, "totally under the thumb of the government," admits to a bare margin of victory for Kostunica.
"When they have evidence that by no means all the votes of the opposition candidate were counted, I think that's a pretty good case," Clinton said. "It's time for democracy and for the voices of the people of Serbia to be heard."
Kok agreed with Clinton's assessment of the vote, and said he also believes the sanctions should be removed.
"That double message should be very clear," Kok said. "The people said, 'We want to get rid of Milosevic.' And we say as soon as there will be a new leadership, the sanctions will be over."
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States would move to lift the sanctions and restore Yugoslavia's rights as a U.N. member state if Kostunica is allowed to take office.
Russia has declined to join Western governments in calling on Milosevic to step down.
White House national security spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. officials are in contact with Russian officials and are confident that they would encourage Milosevic to honor the election results.
"They have made very constructive statements about the need to respect the will of the people," Crowley said. "So, in our judgment, the handwriting is on the wall."
As for the United States, "we want to see Milosevic out of power, out of Serbia and in the Hague," facing a war crimes tribunal, Crowley said.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said the United States was encouraged by the developments in Belgrade. Without offering specifics, he said the U.S. military was "prepared for contingencies that affect our national security interests."