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Economy Dominates Serbian Presidential Campaign - 2002-09-18

Two years after a popular uprising forced Slobodan Milosevic to yield power, Serbia is preparing for presidential elections at the end of this month.

There are two main candidates. One is Vojislav Kostunica, the current president of the Yugoslav federation, which, for at least a few more months, links Serbia with neighboring Montenegro. Possibly before the end of the year, Yugoslavia is to dissolve into a looser federation to be called Serbia and Montenegro. Once this happens, Mr. Kostunica will be out of a job.

His biggest rival for the Serbian presidency is Miroljub Labus, the deputy prime minister in charge of economic reform in Yugoslavia. There are several other candidates, but most analysts say only Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Labus have a real chance of winning.

The election takes place September 29. If no candidate wins a majority, there will be a runoff election between the two leading candidates two weeks later.

Opinion surveys suggest that Mr. Labus, at the moment, enjoys a modest lead. His campaign emphasizes the importance of speed in market-based reform and the need for privatization and foreign investment. He also stresses the importance of Serbia's becoming a member of the European Union.

Mr. Kostunica, who has been Serbia's most popular politician, takes a more cautious approach toward economic reform. He supports it but says more should be done to maintain a social safety net for the poor. Mr. Kostunica is a Serbian nationalist, suspicious of the Hague Tribunal, where Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, is on trial for war crimes.

There are other candidates with nationwide appeal. They include ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj and Nebojsa Pavkovic, who commanded Yugoslavia's military during the 1999 war in Kosovo. Mr. Milosevic, from his cell in The Hague, has called on his remaining followers to vote for Mr. Seselj.

But the economy, not Serb nationalism, seems to be dominating this election. With the average worker in Serbia making about $150 a month, it is not surprising that the economy is the main issue.