Despite hail of bombs, Milosevic still holds key to deal on Kosovo

NATO has rebuffed him, but leader will be linchpin as diplomacy intensifies

Does he want to be a deal-maker and end the conflict or to prolong it?

War In Yugoslavia

May 19, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- They bombed his villa, smashed his television transmitters and muddied his name.

But when it comes to trying to fashion a deal to end the Kosovo crisis, NATO's leaders must still pay attention to the maneuvers and signals of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

With diplomacy intensifying this week and Russian envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin saying he will return to Belgrade today, Milosevic is again bound to take center stage.

Yet Milosevic remains among the more elusive figures in a war that has continued for nearly two months. He is sealed off from the public, his appearances usually limited to brief and silent televised snippets.

Milosevic retains a grip over a nation that is absorbing a punishing bombing campaign. But his face seems to get paler by the day, as he is often pictured seated around a table with his political allies or military leaders. And as the war drags on, questions hang in the air over Milosevic's intentions.

Does he want to be a deal-maker and end the conflict or to prolong it?

The answers could become clearer in the coming days, especially with the arrival of the Chernomyrdin mission, which some here say could be the best chance, if not last, to quickly cut a peace deal in Kosovo.

"No chance is ever the last chance. If this does not succeed, the whole thing could last much longer, perhaps years," said Bogoljub Karic, a wealthy businessman and Serbian government minister who is among the country's influential personalities.

But Karic cautioned that "it is impossible to negotiate while you're under bombardment. Yugoslav people are proud people."

Still, Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic indicated that his country is ready to find a way out of the war, saying yesterday that, despite reservations, the Yugoslav government is open to peace proposals generated by the foreign ministers of the leading industrial nations.

The Group of Eight plan -- offered by Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan the United States and Russia -- could form the basis of a United Nations Security Council resolution and includes a proposal for an international security presence in Kosovo. The West is pushing for heavily armed military troops with a NATO core. Yugoslavia has rejected armed troops and participation of nations that launched the allied bombing campaign.

Karic said, "The G-8 proposal is a basis for further negotiations. During those negotiations, the final agreement will be made."

Despite all the military and diplomatic muscle brought to bear on Yugoslavia, the war's resolution, at least in the short term, may still be up to Milosevic.

In recent weeks, he has seemingly signaled his intention to deal, rather than surrender. But for Milosevic, the problem is that the Western alliance hasn't shown much interest in his moves.

His release of three captured U.S. soldiers was answered by stepped up NATO bombing.

His military's announcement of a partial withdrawal from Kosovo, was called a ploy and ignored.

According to local political analyst Bratislav Grubacic, Milosevic might have been rattled when NATO rebuffed his overtures. After years of being treated as the linchpin in Balkan deal-making, Milosevic is being treated differently and may be unsettled by that.

"Milosevic was nervous the last two weeks. No one brought an offer. He didn't understand he was supposed to give the offer. He wants to be a partner in this game," said Grubacic, publisher of the influential Belgrade newsletter, VIP Daily News Report.

While Milosevic's hold on power seems firmer than ever, there are small signs that the country is tiring of the war. Anti-war protests, triggered by the return of dead and wounded soldiers, reportedly broke out Monday in Krusevac and Aleksandrovac.

"We want sons, not coffins," was the main slogan during a three-hour protest Monday in Krusevac, the opposition Demo- cratic Party said on its World Wide Web site.

In nearby Aleksandrovac, protests broke out among 1,000 relatives of reservists who were due to conclude leaves and return to Kosovo.

Belgrade's citizens have remained behind the war effort. And all appeared normal yesterday as thousands thronged the streets on a sunny day.

Beneath the surface, there may be rumblings. Red paint was splashed on the headquarters of the Democratic Party, whose leader Zoran Djindjic criticized Milosevic from the relative safety of Montenegro.

Djindjic has joined forces with Montenegro's president, Milo Djukanovic, with the pair recently touring European capitals and offering themselves as the democratic alternative to Milosevic.

Opposition leader Vesna Pesic has remained in Belgrade.

"Nobody is pro-NATO," she said. "It doesn't mean you are supporting the leadership who brought us to this situation."

Pesic said there are indications that Milosevic might be ready to negotiate.

"If you look at television, his propaganda, some signs exist," she said. "This withdrawal of soldiers, he is giving some kind of signs. If there is a qualified mediator with something acceptable from both sides, we might think he would accept it."

In Yugoslavia, Milosevic usually gets his way. But this time, instead of dueling with political foes, he is up against NATO. And there appears to be little room to maneuver.

"To stay in power, that is what he wants," Grubacic said. "He miscalculated that it would last so long, that the NATO alliance could be so stubborn, cruel. He counted on more sympathy from Russia. He thought Europe would split with America.

"After one month of airstrikes, he lost a bit of an idea of what to do," Grubacic said. "His choice is to accept something or go on with the war until NATO is stuck in the mud with refugees."

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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