Kosovo deal in reach, says tycoon with Milosevic's ear

Powerful deal-maker seeking a compromise that is palatable to all

May 06, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Their rise to fame and wealth began as Serbian folk musicians from Pec in Kosovo. Now, they are among Yugoslavia's top business leaders with the ability to communicate directly with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

So, when the Karic brothers speak, especially about resolving the Kosovo crisis, people listen.

Yesterday, Bogoljub Karic, a leader of the family's business empire and a government minister, spoke of the search to fashion a compromise to end the crisis and NATO's war against Yugoslavia.

"We have mighty NATO with almighty leadership," he said. "We have small Yugoslavia. Definitely, we must make a compromise. In the wise compromise, NATO will be a winner. And we have to see us as a winner, too."

Though power was out and an air raid alert in progress, Karic sounded almost upbeat during a one-hour interview in the gathering gloom of his ornate office at his family's television station.

With beefy hands, a thick mustache, finely tailored suit and down-to-earth manner, Karic is the very picture of a blunt businessman accustomed to making snap decisions and closing tough negotiations. His office is decorated with flags, carpets and plaques bearing the family crest, which includes two lions and the name of their hometown, Pec.

"In my estimation, we are very close to a deal," he said, without elaboration, of efforts to resolve the Kosovo crisis.

In recent days, Karic and his older brother Dragomir have taken more public roles in a bid to trigger peace talks. Bogoljub Karic helped bring about the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's mission to persuade Milosevic to free three captive U.S. soldiers. He met with Jackson's delegation and reportedly lobbied Milosevic to agree to the release.

"I felt Jackson had a vision, and healthy positive energy to help all human beings," Karic said.

On the weekend the POWs were released, Dragomir Karic was in Vienna, Austria, attending talks on Kosovo between U.S. and Russian lawmakers.

The Belgrade-based VIP Daily News said Milosevic is relying on his family and the Karic brothers for advice.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Maryland Republican who participated in the Vienna meeting, said Dragomir Karic was the lone envoy sent by Milosevic to meet with the members of Congress and members of the Russian State Duma who attended. Occasionally he would drift away from the discussions to touch base with Milosevic.

"He would go over to the corner of the room and talk with Milosevic," Bartlett said. "He did it three times. He carried a little cell phone."

The congressman compared the Karic family's influence to that of some of America's most powerful figures. "If I was talking to you 50 years ago," Bartlett said, "I'd compare [Karic] to a Rockefeller, a Mellon, a Carnegie or a Ford."

Bogoljub Karic said he saw Milosevic last week and that the Yugoslav president "knows his task is most difficult. He has to defend our country. He is aware of NATO and how mighty it is."

It's not the first time that business and government have intersected in Belgrade.

In the annals of modern Yugoslavia, the Karics' company, BK Group International, is the stuff of legend, four brothers and a sister transforming themselves from folk musicians to entrepreneurs. From their Pec garage in the 1970s, they created an agricultural machinery workshop, the launching pad to a conglomerate that has global interests in construction, insurance, finance, banking and telecommunications.

The firm's Yugoslav enterprises include Eastern Europe's first private bank, the country's first nationwide private television station, a stake in the cellular telephone network and a private university.

While other television stations have been targeted by NATO bombing, the Karics' BKTV has escaped relatively unscathed, losing one transmission antenna. The station remains on the air, and its headquarters still stands.

With Yugoslavia's unemployment rate soaring and its economy sputtering under the weight of the bombardment, the family's interests will likely be adversely affected as the war drags on.

But Karic brushed aside business questions, focusing instead on the roots of the Kosovo crisis and the efforts to reach a deal that would appease all sides.

Just before the war, he was in Washington, where he spoke to officials inside and outside the government.

"I gave them a warning, that you will find a unity you had never seen before in Yugoslavia," he said. "That we have the best support you can find. That you will destroy Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo and your attack will be no help to them. It will be a catastrophe."

Asked how Yugoslavia and NATO could come to an agreement to end the war, Karic emphasized much of the familiar Yugoslav government line, with a few wrinkles. He said he was speaking on his own behalf.

"The bombing has to stop immediately," he said. "Simultaneously, we have to invite the United Nations to deploy their forces on the border between Yugoslavia and Macedonia and Yugoslavia and Albania."

On the contentious issue of whether the U.N. force should be armed, Karic said light arms would be acceptable, but not heavy weapons and armor because Kosovo should be demilitarized.

"We should withdraw our tanks and NATO should not bring in its tanks," he said, adding that Russia, Ukraine and other northern European countries should make up the bulk of the force. Most NATO countries should be excluded, he said.

"If we had to accept other NATO members, we could choose others who did not participate in the action," he said.

Karic said Kosovo must remain part of Serbia. Refugees would be allowed to return, along with humanitarian agencies. A multiethnic police force should be established, he said.

Sun staff writer David L. Greene contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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