VOTERS in the Serb-held region of Croatia appear to have rejected the long-armed rule of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic by electing a political foe, Milan Babic, as president of the so-called ``Serbian Republic of the Krajina'' (RSK).
The latest unofficial results released Sunday show that, with roughly 70 percent of the votes counted, Mr. Babic - mayor of Knin, the capital of the RSK - won 116,014 votes, or 49 percent of the total. His principal opponent, Milan Martic, running as an independent and backed by Mr. Milosevic, received 25 percent of the vote.
Final results of the ballot, the first to be held in the rebel Serb enclave that declared independence from Croatia, are not yet in. In order to avoid a run-off, Babic needs to win 50 percent of the vote plus one vote.
The message was clear. By overwhelmingly supporting Babic, voters in the RSK opted to continue their support for the overall aim of a Greater Serbia, but want it negotiated on their own terms.
Rumors circulating that Milosevic may want to sacrifice parts of the Krajina in a territorial swap for an overall political settlement in the former Yugoslavia have fueled the anxiety and anti-Belgrade sentiment.
The latest plan for peace in the Balkans pushed forward by the European Union suggests gradually lifting sanctions on Serbia in return for Bosnian Serbs seceding more land to Muslims in eastern Bosnia. Some political analysts suggest Milosevic would rather give up some more barren parts of the Krajina than Bosnian land closer to Serbia proper.
The results were sweet revenge for Babic. After Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in June 1991, he lead the Serb rebellion against Croatia, backed by the Yugoslav National Army, but he was later ousted by Milosevic for opposing the UN-negotiated peace plan that declared a cease-fire in Croatia and allowed 14,000 UN troops to move into Serb-held regions.
The election in the Krajina also flew in the face of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, whose government condemned the vote.
Croatia has offered the Krajina Serbs only ``cultural'' and ``local autonomy'' in two cities in the Serb-held area where Serbs were the majority before the war.
Although Babic has moderated his stance of two years ago and says he is willing to talk openly with Croatia about peace, the RSK and the Croatian government are still polarized in their views about the future of the republic.
``My motto is `negotiate as equals,' '' Babic said just before the vote. ``There is a chance for a peaceful coexistence with Croatia if we are recognized by the international community as an equal state in the same way as they recognized Croatia when they seceded from the former Yugoslavia.''
In condemning the election, the Croatian government urged the UN Security Council to take ``appropriate action'' in accordance with UN resolutions stating that the Krajina is an integral part of Croatia. Croatian UN envoy Mario Nobilo termed the vote illegal, null and void.
The price for self-determination in the Krajina has been high. Sanctions on Serbia for their support of the revolt have left this region financially devastated and isolated from the rest of the world.
The little humanitarian aid that comes in to the area is siphoned by black marketeers, crime runs rampant in the streets, war profiteers control the economy, and the infrastructure of civil society has completely broken down.
Both Babic and Martic vaguely addressed these internal issues in the campaign and made hefty promises of peace, but ultimately none of the Krajina's problems can be solved until the bigger territorial questions are answered.
Babic's Serbian Democratic Party, winning 30 seats, fell short of an absolute majority and will likely have to form a coalition with the Radicals and the party most closely aligned with Martic, both of which won 16 seats.
Balloting in six areas was annulled due to irregularities mostly associated with communications and technical problems. A fresh vote in these areas will be held Dec. 26. A revote for four and possibly five of the parliamentary seats may have to be taken.
While a run-off may be in question, the president of the RSK's electoral commission said he did not expect the new votes would change the figures substantially.
In addition to the presidential elections, voters cast their ballots for an 84-seat parliament slimmed down to one third its previous size.