Serb hawks enjoy roaring rights

Mega-patriots rally to flag, Welcome chance to defend land

War In Yugoslavia

April 17, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- When Miodrag Vujovic sounds off on NATO's war with Yugoslavia, he slips into his television studio and lets out a roar.

During periodic 15-minute screeds on his TV Palma station, the bearded, fiery-eyed 43-year-old has castigated Western leaders, derided NATO and growled, "Only dead Americans are good Americans."

For Vujovic and other hard-liners, these are bullish times, for the war fever has emboldened Serbia's superpatriots.

With political debate extinguished and even opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic rallying to the country's cause, nationalists and other government supporters are dominating the airwaves and newspapers.

In a country at war, the true believers toe the government line, and then some.

For them, there is little doubt over how this war will end -- with a Serbian victory over a humiliated NATO.

They believe that their cause is just and that Kosovo and its treasury of Eastern Orthodox churches and monasteries must remain part of Serbia.

And they vehemently deny that Serbian security forces are engaged in an "ethnic cleansing" campaign to rid Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian majority.

To many here, the war is about a little country backed into a corner by misguided outsiders and the combined might of NATO.

They claim that few outside the Balkans understand the region, its politics and its bloody, centuries-old rivalries. And they maintain that the Serbs are willing to fight to the last man.

"The Serb war aims are simple," said Vujovic, a lawyer-turned-TV station owner. "We are defending our country and Kosovo is ours. Albanians are our citizens. They cannot just take our land and take it with them to Albania."

Like many others, here, Vujovic seems to be daring NATO to send ground troops to Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

"The war will be ended when you run out of planes," Vujovic said. "I am not willing you to come with ground troops but I am telling you that no one will come back alive. Your fairy tales about Rambo are only movie fairy tales."

Vujovic's statements may seem outlandish to Westerners. But they're only a tad more bellicose than the norm in a country where the state news agency, Tanjug, refers to President Clinton as "Criminal Clinton."

"The hard-liners are in control," said Vojislav Kostunica, leader of the moderate Democratic Party of Serbia. "If a city is under siege, people will gather around authoritarian rule."

And in the modern media age, one way to impose rule is with tough talk. With each day the war drags on, the rhetoric grows more heated.

Ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, the Serbian deputy prime minister, has spoken of collecting war reparations from "aggressor countries."

Nebojsa Vujovic, the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesman, brushed aside a peace initiative from Germany and made clear that Yugoslavia "is ready to defend itself in air, on land, at sea."

Others have spoken starkly of Serbia standing up to Western interests on behalf of other smaller nations.

The changing war aims in recent days alarmed Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic, a nationalist who has taken more moderate positions.

Draskovic told a news conference, "Someone is now formulating new objectives, that we must bear bombs, that we have to be victims of aggression and crimes until we set Europe free, until we crush NATO, until we create a new United Nations and crush the New World Order."

Badly misunderstood

Many Serbs say their country has been badly misunderstood, particularly over the issue of Kosovo. Their version of the story is diametrically different from the U.S. and NATO version.

Take the role of the ethnic Albanian rebel force known as the Kosovo Liberation Army.

To the Serbs, the KLA fighters are the military equivalent of Islamic Jihad in the Middle East: Terrorists who shot Serbian police, hijacked civilians and had to be rooted out by Serbian security forces. To the West, they're potential surrogates.

Consider the claims and counterclaims of ethnic cleansing. Many Serbs maintain that ethnic Albanian refugees fled Kosovo because of NATO bombs.

"You can see Kosovo was hit very badly by NATO bombing. Would you stay in such a place?" said Maja Levi Jacksic, vice rector of the University of Belgrade.

"We had no refugee problem before the bombing," she said. "But then, the bombing started and the refugees came."

Western leaders have pinned the blame on the Serbian security forces, whose carefully choreographed push against ethnic Albanians included destroying citizenship documents and stripping the license plates from vehicles bound for other countries.

In Belgrade, Milosevic is now viewed as a strong leader uniting his people. In the West, he is blamed for igniting the Kosovo conflict, as well as fanning the flames of nationalism that led to a series of regional wars and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Some in the West even want Milosevic indicted as a war criminal.

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