NATO pressure galvanizes Serbia Public closes ranks around Milosevic

October 07, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- As Western military threats mounted and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke stepped up shuttle diplomacy to prod Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to reach a political settlement in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo yesterday, Serbs appeared to be closing the ranks.

The way Serbian historian Dusan Batakovic sees it, there's one quick way to galvanize local support for Milosevic -- send in the NATO warplanes.

"The bombing will only strengthen Milosevic," said Batakovic, research director for the Institute for Balkan Studies. "If there is a bombing, we will all have to say, it is a bad thing and we will all have to be against it."

Some here may be opposed to Milosevic, who fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism, oversaw the breakup of the Yugoslavia federation and turned what was left of the country -- Serbia and tiny Montenegro states -- into an international pariah. But nearly all fear what could happen if the West uses airstrikes to lay the groundwork for a cease-fire in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1.

"There are two extremes," said Zoran Djindjic, an opposition political leader who led pro-democracy demonstrations in the winter of 1996-97 and who for a brief time was Belgrade's mayor.

"One is to do nothing, which they have been doing. The other is to bomb. Both of them are wrong. I can't believe there is nothing in between."

Since a government crackdown started in February in Kosovo, more than 1,000 people have been killed and 250,000 have lost their homes, as Serbian security forces razed villages while trying to extinguish the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.

Despite continued threats to use force to handcuff the Serbian security forces, repatriate refugees, and start meaningful political dialogue between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians, it appears the West is playing for time before launching bombers.

Balkan trouble-shooter Holbrooke continued to try to broker a deal, sandwiching two meetings with Milosevic around a visit to Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina. There, he met with ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova and conferred with officials tending to refugees.

Holbrooke was prepared to deliver a stern message to Milosevic about what he saw and heard.

"There are still a huge number of refugees in the hills," Holbrooke said in Pristina, adding that those who have returned to their homes have found them "wrecked."

Holbrooke said Serbian security forces were "winterizing" their outposts, a sign they were prepared for a long stay to make the return of refugees "more difficult."

Last night, a convoy of Serbian security forces left Kosovo. Other military units also have left the province, or returned to their garrisons. For nearly a week, there has been a virtual cease-fire.

Holbrooke said Milosevic should not downplay the threat of NATO force. "If he thinks NATO is bluffing all I can do is convey to him the seriousness of the situation," he said.

But after yesterday's meeting, the U.S. side was gloomy.

A U.S. diplomat said, "It wasn't a good meeting."

"This is the grimmest situation we have faced in the region," he added. "We are on the edge of a major use of force or on the edge of something substantial that would avoid the use of force."

For his part, Milosevic denounced the "criminal" threats by NATO to use air strikes.

Another round of talks is expected today.

Russia, a longtime friend to Serbia, also is trying to broker a diplomatic solution. Yesterday, it warned that it would veto any attempt by the United Nations to sanction attacks on Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile, in Belgrade, Canada said yesterday that it had evacuated all nonessential diplomatic staff and their families from its embassy. Other countries were expected to follow suit.

Yet, the local population is seemingly immune to fears over NATO firepower. Weary from the multiple Balkan wars of the 1990s, and accustomed to daily ultimatums from Western politicians, the residents of the Yugoslav capital apparently have decided to carry on living as they always have.

Under sunny skies yesterday, the main shopping street was thronged, and the cafes were full.

"We think the crisis will be solved some way," said 17-year-old Jelna Panic. 'We just don't know how."

"Bombing wouldn't be fair," said Panic's friend, Ratka Savovic. "Why kill so many people?"

Local soccer star Srdjan Bajcetic, who plays for Red Star Belgrade, admitted that "we all do worry about an attack."

"I know what is going on," he said. "But I don't know what will happen."

He added, there was enough blame to spread around over the present crisis.

"Everybody is at fault, starting with us," he said. "The international community. Albanians. All of us are to blame."

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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