Milosevic regime seeking U.N. cover

His Kosovo `sellout' raises huge political problems at home

June 08, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Never underestimate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's ability to strike one bargain -- and then another.

A look at his multiple domestic problems might explain why he again went to the brink with NATO when his military commanders balked at implementing a Kosovo peace deal.

His army is beaten.

His public is restless.

His ultra-nationalist political allies are upset.

And tens of thousands of Serbian civilians in Kosovo could soon face the difficult choice of living under international occupation or fleeing Serbia's historic heartland as ethnic Albanian refugees return to the shattered province.

By stalling yesterday, and turning the United Nations rather than NATO into the forum on Kosovo, Milosevic showed that even in defeat, he remains a wily negotiator and a politician whose first rule is political survival.

Milosevic desperately demanded the U.N. fig leaf offered to him previously to help market what many here would call his sellout of Kosovo. He may be among Europe's last authoritarian leaders, but that doesn't mean he can safely ignore the opinions and passions of his various constituencies.

"He needed a kind of alibi," said Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the Belgrade-based newsletter VIP Daily News Report.

International troops wearing the blue helmets of the United Nations, instead of the colors of NATO, could provide Milosevic with enough political cover to survive what will likely be very rocky months in Yugoslavia.

So intent is Milosevic on tying the deal to the United Nations that Serbian state television claimed over the weekend that Yugoslav military chiefs were negotiating terms of withdrawal with U.N. experts, instead of taking marching orders from British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, as they were really doing.

The Yugoslav military had concerns over the proposed quick withdrawal from Kosovo of about 40,000 troops, police and paramilitary units -- the instruments of the latest Balkan "ethnic cleansing."

Serbian military leaders claimed that they need more time, more routes and better bridges to leave safely. The officers also expressed fears that their retreating troops might be sitting ducks for vengeful ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

"The government wants a staged and orderly withdrawal," said Yugoslav political analyst Predrag Simic.

But even that goal poses huge problems. NATO's demand that all Serbian forces withdraw from Kosovo means that thousands of soldiers and police who are from the province will be forced out. If they leave, their families would likely go, beginning an exodus of Serbian civilians, who numbered about 200,000 before the war's outbreak.

Asked about the potential for Serbs to leave, Yugoslav government minister Goran Matic said: "If the purpose of the operation is a just and equally safe life for all in Kosovo, should anyone be leaving Kosovo?"

Stevan Mirkovic, a retired Yugoslav general and former chief of staff, offered a bleak assessment of the military's proposed withdrawal. If the Yugoslav army leaves Kosovo, Serbian civilians are sure to follow, he said. That could present major political problems for Milosevic, whose rise to power began with a famous speech in Kosovo waving the banner of Serbian nationalism.

"No Serbs will stay in Kosovo," Mirkovic said. "This will be the end of Milosevic, and he knows it."

The army also might be unhappy. A military force that was humiliated during a series of defeats during the Balkan wars of the 1990s apparently regained some of its luster among locals by surviving sustained allied bombing this spring.

As the war wore on, the death toll has risen. Now, with its pride wounded and its hardware battered, the military will be retreating to shattered barracks, a smashed land and a divided country.

The splits in the government were apparent Friday when the Serbian parliament debated terms of the deal in a closed session that reportedly included shouts of "traitor" and near fistfights.

Serbian Radical Party chief Vojislav Seselj vowed to walk out of the government if NATO troops enter Kosovo. Seselj and Milosevic have reportedly smoothed over their differences to avoid short-term political problems.

But political brush fires could continue to haunt Milosevic's regime, with the scale of Yugoslavia's physical and economic devastation likely becoming more painfully obvious by winter.

For now, though, people here just want the war to end.

The faltering of talks surprised many Belgrade residents, who were awakened early yesterday by the sound of air raid sirens that echoed through the city's darkened streets.

"It's not our fault," said Radmila Zivkovic, a 56-year-old housewife walking with her grandson in a quiet Belgrade neighborhood.

"Americans are always trying to take more from us," she said. "I'm not disappointed because I think whatever happens, we're the losers. I don't even like to think of the war. Anyway, we gave away much more than we should have."

Branamar Ilic, 36, a worker, said: "We were trying to get the best deal we could from negotiations. We're not guilty because we're fighting for the best conditions. I'm not guilty. The best deal is here. I wouldn't like to go to war again. Anyway, we gave up Kosovo. Isn't that enough?"

Zarko Culum, a 41-year-old tram driver, was upset to hear that NATO wants to quickly send troops into Kosovo.

"We've given up enough," he said. "They've squeezed us like lemons."

Pavle Vacic, a 48-year-old engineer, figures that a deal will eventually be cut.

"But we will be disappointed, especially when NATO gets Kosovo," he said. "We already gave our hearts to Kosovo."

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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