With pullback offer, Milosevic may declare `victory' and survive

Familiar formula appears bid to appease his people, extract diplomatic solution

War In Yugoslavia

May 11, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- With his country crippled, economy ruined and army braced to absorb more NATO bombardment, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appeared yesterday to be following a familiar formula: Declare victory and get out of NATO's firing line.

Despite falling short of Western demands, the Yugoslav army's announcement of a partial withdrawal of police and military forces from Kosovo was Milosevic's bid to kick-start the diplomatic endgame, according to Yugoslav analysts.

Domestically, Milosevic's regime is trying to present the partial withdrawal order as a prelude to victory. The Yugoslav army's supreme command claimed that its forces had eliminated strongholds of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army and that it could eventually reduce military and police in the Serbian province to pre-war levels.

Internationally, the order appeared to be offered as an initial step toward a diplomatic settlement. NATO headquarters quickly dismissed the troop withdrawal announcement, but Milosevic knows that NATO's European member nations are coming under increasing public and political pressure to resolve the conflict. If Milosevic follows through on a pullout, it could provide momentum to negotiate other NATO demands for a settlement.

"I expect that NATO will follow the lead -- declare victory and start withdrawing," said Predrag Simic, an adviser to deposed Yugoslav Deputy Premier Vuk Draskovic.

Simic said Milosevic and the West had reached a stalemate in the battle over Kosovo.

"In spite of ultimate military power, NATO couldn't use it in a better way," he said. "There were too many accidents with civilians."

Simic said, "NATO is losing, Milosevic is winning. But NATO is not losing too much nor Milosevic winning too much."

As the great survivor of Balkan politics, Milosevic has veered between pragmatism and opportunism, remaining in power even as Yugoslavia dissolved. Despite losing wars and land, he never lost his touch to divide and conquer foes or transform defeats into victories.

Milosevic couldn't lose Kosovo by negotiation and keep his regime intact, many here have long said. But by fighting the combined might of NATO for more than 40 days, he could show his people that he had done all he could to keep the province within Serbia and keep foreign troops at bay.

Although support for Milosevic has remained high, most here realized the war against NATO would be difficult, if not impossible to win. Yugoslav troops are believed to have taken fewer casualties than expected during the war's opening weeks. But damage to Yugoslavia's military and national infrastructure was expected to mount as NATO intensified the air campaign.

"Milosevic wants to find a way out of this crisis. He needs to, but he wants to save face publicly, without capitulation," said Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the VIP Daily News Report, an influential Belgrade-based newsletter.

"Milosevic is very talented to understand to what edge he can go," Grubacic said. "What Milosevic is desperately trying to do is to come out of this without a label as a loser. I do think he hopes this partial withdrawal of troops will soften the Western alliance, that Italy and Germany will produce pressure on Americans."

Can Milosevic keep his power base in Serbia and convince the people that he has won?

"Ordinary people, those who are watching only official state TV, will believe," Grubacic said. "They are kind of hypnotized people. Whatever the magic box tells them, they'll believe."

Predrag Markovic, a historian with the Belgrade-based Institute for Political Science, said the withdrawal order shows "we are prepared to cooperate and be constructive."

"Now we are expecting a period of negotiation about the composition of an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo," he said. "Our government will work very hard not to have U.S. forces. But if they have to accept them, there will be no more Americans in Kosovo than there are in Bosnia," where 6,200 U.S. troops are in the 32,000-member Stabilization Force.

In 1995, Milosevic sold the Dayton accords to his people as an honorable way to end the long, bloody war in Bosnia. Milosevic can again sell a settlement to his people, according to Simic.

"It will be nicely presented as a great victory of David vs. Goliath, the people defied NATO and led to the withdrawal," Simic said.

Still, Simic said he is waiting to see how NATO will answer the withdrawal order.

"Look in the skies," he said. "If NATO accepts, we'll see less bombing."

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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