SERBIA'S President Slobodan Milosevic sought in last weekend's Assembly elections a stable Socialist Party government that would strengthen him in international peace negotiations and in dealing with internal economic disaster.
But while his party has emerged stronger from the contests, it seems unlikely that any government it forms will survive more than a few months, denying the Serbian strongman the long-term, solid political base that he wanted.
Even so, says a Western diplomat: ``Milosevic has bought himself the winter.''
During that period, the man widely held most responsible for the collapse of former Yugoslavia will be able to pursue the international peace talks on Bosnia-Herzegovina that resumed on Tuesday.
Despite the ongoing impasse, some analysts say Mr. Milosevic may eventually wear down the crisis-weary European Union with his obstinacy and force it to accept a pro-Serbia settlement that would permit the lifting of United Nations sanctions.
He would also have time to take the harsh steps needed to counter Serbia's 1 percent per hour hyperinflation produced by more than two years of war and fueled by the 19-month-old UN sanctions.
With virtually all 4.28 million ballots counted, the Serbian Election Commission gives the Socialists 123 seats in the 250-seat Assembly, three less than needed for absolute majority.
Repolling due to irregularities and alleged fraud has been ordered in 50 of the almost 10,000 polling stations. But the outcome is not expected to be enough to give the Socialists their absolute majority.
``It's clear that the Socialists have to form a coalition or a minority government,'' the Western diplomat says. ``The question is who will be willing to play with them.''
The answer will emerge from the intense political bartering and maneuvering that will take place in coming weeks.
Political analysts expect Milosevic to use every resource at his disposal to induce one of the opposition parties that won Assembly seats to join a Socialist-led coalition or provide the votes needed for his party to rule as a minority government.
Another option would be the formation of a so-called ``government of experts'' - technocrats who would not be obstructed by some opposition groups.
Milosevic is not expected, however, to have any bartering power with his two biggest opponents: the centrist Democratic Coalition of Serbia, or DEPOS, of former author Vuk Draskovic, which captured 45 seats; or the Socialists' nationalist ally-turned-archrival, the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, which won 39.
Attention had focused on the Democratic Party of Vojvodina Hungarians (DZVM), which won five seats and represents the large ethnic Hungarian minority in northern Vojvodina Province.
But cooperation with Milosevic is being ruled out by the DZVM, which in recent months has been attacked by the Socialists as secessionists.
The DZVM says it will have no alliance with the mainstream opposition. Both the opposition and the Socialists, the DZVM says, embrace in some form the goal of creating ``Greater Serbia'' through the annexation of the Serb-conquered territories of Croatia and Bosnia.
``Our goal is to win autonomy for Hungarians in Vojvodina, not to participate in the structure of power,'' says Pal Sandor, DZVM's vice president.
Speculation now focuses on the fourth-place Democratic Party, which appears set to clinch 29 seats. Its young, ambition-filled leader, Zoran Djindjic, has expressed a willingness to cooperate with the Socialists on the formation of a ``government of experts.''
Any deal between Mr. Djindjic and Milosevic would likely ignite a rebellion within the Democratic Party, many members of which are vehement opponents of Milosevic's sponsorship of the land-grabs in Bosnia and Croatia.
But one Socialist Party official suggests that under Serbia's legislative rules, Djindjic could simply replace any of his Assembly members who objected.
There appears little hope, meanwhile, that Mr. Draskovic could succeed in his idea of molding the feud-riven, ideologically disparate opposition parties into an anti-Milosevic ruling coalition.
The alternative, opposition officials say, would be to unite long enough to vote down Milosevic's proposed administration when it presents itself to the legislature for approval, forcing the fourth republic Assembly elections since December 1990.
Others see an opportunity to first hit Milosevic hard by attacking his main source of power: control of state-run Belgrade television, which he employed ruthlessly during the election campaign to demonize the opposition, while promoting his own party.
By combining their 127 seats, the opposition could ram through a new law eliminating direct government control of television and end the current system that allows the Socialists to pack it with pro-Milosevic managers.
Some opposition leaders, like Draskovic, have portrayed the election outcome as a defeat for Milosevic because he has failed to recapture the absolute majority the Socialists lost last year.
But many analysts disagree with that assessment. ``Given the nose dive in the economy, nose dive in production, and per capita income and hyper-inflation beyond comprehension, he [Milosevic] was able to engineer this election in a fashion that increased the standing of his party in the Assembly and put him within a hair's breath of an absolute majority,'' the Western diplomat says. ``This shows that Milosevic is still staying a step ahead of the avalanche,'' he continues. ``But, how long he is going to continue to be able to outrun the boulders is anybody's guess.''