Serbs are showing greater resolve as attacks persist

Milosevic more popular, picking up political and military strength

April 11, 1999|By Justin Brown | Justin Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- After dark and after the bomb sirens have sounded, hundreds of Serbs gather on a main bridge here, daring NATO to take a shot at them.

They carry poster portraits of Slobodan Milosevic, and chant "We won't give -- Ko-so-vo."

One young woman hoists a sign over her head, an English-language message to NATO: "Come and fight us face-to-face."

The war has gone on more than two weeks now. A senior Yugoslav official told the New York Times yesterday that more than 300 civilians have died and another 3,000 have been wounded in the NATO bombings. But Serbs seem more defiant than ever.

They have settled into a state of war that has no signs of letting up, and many here believe they can win.

"We will win, especially if this becomes a ground war," says Milica, a student at Belgrade University. "Everyone will go to Kosovo if they have to. My brother will fight; my grandfather will fight."

The same can be said of Milosevic, who, despite heavy damage to his country's infrastructure, has successfully completed the first phase of his campaign: a sweeping consolidation of power, both on the ground in Kosovo and in the political command of Belgrade.

It is just the opposite of what NATO planners had hoped for. From here, there are no signs that the Serbs will crack.

"Milosevic is doing a great job of enduring," says Dejan Anastasijevic, an independent analyst. "Most of the system is still running, state institutions are still working and people still support him. This is the strongest he's been in the last 10 years."

Now, through recent peace overtures -- an Orthodox Easter cease-fire, talk for a while of releasing three captured U.S. soldiers, and a bizarre series of meetings with ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova -- Milosevic is trying to bring the war to the diplomatic table, where he tends to succeed. It appears to be his "second phase."

"This could be the best move up to now by the Yugoslav government," says a political science professor at Belgrade University. "We are at war, and this is propaganda. It shows the world we are a normal country capable of doing something generous. It's to convince those countries in the middle to come to our side."

NATO rejected Milosevic's overtures and even kept bombing near Belgrade while a Cypriot negotiator tried to gain the release of the three U.S. soldiers. "The intensified heavy bombing of the last couple of days made my humanitarian mission more difficult," said Spyros Kyprianou, a former president of Cyprus, upon announcing his failed mission.

But the talks, and the media attention they received, weren't necessarily a failure for Milosevic, who seems to benefit from each wrinkle thrown his way. Russia is as firmly in his camp as ever, and state television here trumpets growing ties with Greece, a NATO member wavering between the 19-country military alliance and sympathetic feelings for fellow Orthodox Christians.

Even Iraq, a Muslim country, is in on the game. Early this week several Iraqis were seen marching down the main boulevard here, raising their flag and the Yugoslav flag, which had been sewed together.

The democratic opposition, which almost unseated Milosevic two years ago, is almost nonexistent. Some opposition leaders refuse to speak to the press; others have subtly adjusted their platforms to dovetail with that of the regime. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, Milosevic's strongest opponent inside the country, fears a coup.

Meanwhile, for people in Belgrade, Kosovo itself has become a forgotten issue. There is little talk of the diplomatic failure that started the bombing: the Serbian refusal to sign a NATO plan for restored autonomy to the ethnic Albanians, and a peace deal policed by about 28,000 NATO troops.

Serbs act unimpressed when they see television images of around 400,000 ethnic Albanians who have fled Kosovo. They've seen it before in Croatia and Bosnia. They no longer worry about the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, which has reportedly been routed, leaving Kosovo "safe" for the few remaining Serbs.

For them, the strongest image of the war is Aleksinac, the poor mining town in central Serbia where three NATO bombs went astray, killing at least 10 people and destroying residential neighborhoods. They call the U.S. president "Adolf Clinton."

Furthermore, confidence is growing in the Yugoslav army, which still brags about shooting down an "invisible" airplane -- the U.S. F-117A stealth fighter that went down during a raid over Yugoslavia.

Through a series of recent shuffles, Milosevic seems to have tightened his control of the army's chain of command -- long a source of suspected weakness here.

Miroslav Lazanski, a military expert who recently spent three days in Kosovo with the Serbian forces, says the army is bracing for a ground attack, and morale is high. "If NATO sends ground troops," he said, "we will kill the first 100 and make chaos in the Western media. We are prepared."

In the end, it seems unlikely that a war will unseat Milosevic or make Serbia conform to the rules of Europe. If anything, analysts say, peace and economic collapse will signal the end, when the Serbs have time to look around themselves, and ask why it all happened.

"Milosevic will finish like Winston Churchill," says Stevan Mirkovic, a former commander of the Yugoslav army under Josip Broz Tito. "He will win the war, but lose in elections afterwards."

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