Belgrade, Yugoslavia — Slobodan Milosevic conceded defeat Friday in Yugoslavia's presidential elections, a day after protesters angry at him for clinging to power stormed parliament and ended his 13-year autocratic regime. His concession to Vojislav Kostunica triggered a huge celebration in the streets, with firecrackers exploding and horns honking throughout the capital.
"I congratulate Mr. Kostunica on his electoral victory and I wish much success to all citizens of Yugoslavia," Milosevic said in the television address as he stood, hands folded, before a Yugoslav flag. "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."
The speech was one of several developments Friday that completed the stunningly swift downfall of Milosevic, one of the last Cold War-style communist dictators left in Europe.
Earlier in the day, Yugoslavia's high court named Kostunica the election winner, powerful Yugoslav ally Russia offered its support and the army indicated to the president-elect that it would obey the new political authority.
Army chief of staff Nebojsa 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," Tanjug news agency reported. He also pledged that the army will carry out its duties according to the constitution.
Milosevic's concession signaled that he has abandoned hopes of blocking Kostunica from taking his oath of office, possibly Saturday, and instead will try to carve out a role for himself in Yugoslav political life. As an indicted war criminal, Milosevic has little chance of seeking asylum abroad and has no choice but to try to reach an accommodation with the new government.
During his speech, Milosevic appeared thinner, paler and clearly tired after weeks of political turmoil.
There were celebrations across the capital after he spoke. Serbs flooded the streets honking horns and exploding fireworks. Some celebratory gunfire rang out.
Milosevic started and lost four wars in the Balkans during his years in power, and sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States and Europe have left much of Yugoslavia impoverished and isolated. When Milosevic denied losing last month's election, public fury with him grew.
On Thursday, as hundreds of thousands of people converged on Belgrade in protest, parts of the crowd stormed parliament. They set fires, tossed portraits of Milosevic out of broken windows and chased the feared riot police away.
Soon the state television building was on fire, too, and within hours it and two police stations had fallen to the protesters. Faced with the mob's fury, many police tossed away their clubs and shields, absorbed by joyous flag-waving crowds. Tanjug said two people were killed and 65 injured in the rioting.
When the violence subsided, it was clear that control belonged to Kostunica, a 56-year-old law professor. Wild celebrations stretched well into Friday.
Kostunica said Friday that he had spoken to Milosevic, though he offered no details. And Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met with Milosevic at a government villa in Belgrade.
Milosevic "said he intends to play a prominent role in the political life of the country," Ivanov said. During the meeting, Milosevic "stressed the importance of solving the crisis through peaceful ways and that the use of force should be avoided," Ivanov told reporters.
Ivanov carried a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin that "congratulated Mr. Kostunica on his victory in the presidential elections." The act removed the last possibility of any important international backing for the fading Milosevic: Russia was the last major European nation to withhold support for Kostunica.
"This is great news," said U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who called it "very, very important."
Later, in another significant boost, the nation's Constitutional Court notified the anti-Milosevic coalition that it had declared Kostunica the new president-elect. The court, once considered a puppet of Milosevic, killed any legal claim by the former strongman.
The speaker of the Serbian parliament, Dragan Tomic, addressed Kostunica as president in a letter. It was the first such recognition by a high official from the Socialist Party of Serbia led by Milosevic.
With state media already calling Kostunica "president" and his supporters ferreting out Milosevic cronies in state institutions, all that's left is a formal inauguration. Kostunica's aides say that could come as early as today.
About 200,000 people gathered in front of the charred parliament Friday. One of their posters read: "Slobodan, are you counting your last minutes."
"We are gradually getting back to normal and I believe the crisis is behind us," Kostunica said.
Milosevic is blamed by the West for starting and then losing the four Balkan wars which 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 Serbia's Kosovo province.
In the last day, though, both the United States and the European Union have said they will begin to lift sanctions as the new democratic administration takes the reins.
U.S. and European sanctions on Serbia which along with Montenegro, makes up what's left of Yugoslavia include an oil embargo, a ban on commerce with Yugoslav firms believed controlled by the Milosevic government, and full rights in the United Nations and with international lenders. The Clinton administration said it intends to move quickly in concert with European allies to remove those economic handcuffs.
"Now is the time to stay the course and stick with people who have won their freedom, the time to build the economic and civil institutions that will allow democracy to endure, reconciliation and cooperation to develop, and the economy to grow," President Clinton said Friday.
Hedging future bets
Albright said the administration was consulting with the Europeans on how to proceed. But if Milosevic somehow managed to carve out a role for himself in the new government, she said, lifting sanctions might be reconsidered.
"We have made clear that it has to be a fully democratic government, and that Milosevic should not have a role in it," Albright said.
But returning Yugoslavia to normal footing may pose its own dilemmas. The sanctions and years of Balkan warfare has left the economy in ruins, and last year's 78-day NATO bombardment in response to the Kosovo crackdown hammered an already creaky transportation and utility network.
Kostunica was putting together a stopgap crisis committee to try to stabilize the country. Somehow he will also have to work with close Milosevic allies, such as powerful Serbian President Milan Milutinovic.
Like Milosevic, Milutinovic was indicted by the international war crimes tribunal for the offensive in Kosovo. Kostunica could come under strong Western pressure to turn over indicted war criminals.
Despite the details left to be played out, Western leaders were rejoicing Friday. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it appeared "the era of Milosevic is over."
"This is the day of real rejoicing in the world and Europe and, most of all, in Serbia," he said.