Milosevic portrays war as moral victory for Yugoslavia

Despite words to nation, many Serbs unconvinced

War In Yugoslavia

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

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Despite overseeing a retreating army and a ruined nation, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic sought yesterday to portray Yugoslavia as having won a moral victory in its 11-week war with NATO.

In his first televised speech to his nation since NATO forces began bombing Yugoslavia on March 24, Milosevic said: "We've shown we have an invincible army, and I'm sure it's the best army in the world."

Dressed in a blue suit and standing by a mantel at his White Palace, Milosevic emphasized that the United Nations and Western powers had "guaranteed" Yugoslavia's "sovereignty and territorial integrity." He said future discussions on Kosovo could be only about autonomy, a rebuke to ethnic Albanians pressing for independence for the Serbian province.

"The territorial integrity of our country can never be questioned again," he said. "We survived and defended the country and raised the entire problem to the peak of the world authority, the pyramid, the United Nations."

The reclusive president's unexpected afternoon appearance, coupled with a strident defense of Yugoslav policy by a leading government spokesman, revealed the determination of authorities to turn a disastrous national defeat into victory.

The mood on Belgrade's streets showed how difficult it will be for the government to convince the people that they have won something. Many believe, instead, that they have lost nearly everything.

Brief celebrations Wednesday night -- in which blue tracer fire filled the skies -- gave way to reflection in the morning sun.

"With one eye, we are smiling, and with another, we are crying," said Bozidar Djurovic, a 43-year-old theater director.

By almost any measure, Yugoslavia sustained devastating political, physical and psychological blows during NATO's 78-day assault.

The campaign of "ethnic cleansing" that resulted in 850,000 ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo confirmed Yugoslavia as a pariah nation. It also led to Milosevic and four of his political allies being indicted for crimes against humanity by an international tribunal.

The country's infrastructure sustained more than $100 billion in damage, with roads, factories and power plants leveled.

Thousands are believed to have died, and the country's civilian population was terrified by weeks of intensive NATO bombing.

During his nine-minute address, Milosevic briefly acknowledged that "we face many new problems," including the "reconstruction of the country."

He said 462 Yugoslav soldiers and 114 police were killed in the conflict. Western analysts say thousands of Yugoslav soldiers might have been killed.

"The people are the heroes and should feel like heroes and behave as such -- with dignity, nobility and responsibility," Milosevic said.

He said peacekeeping troops arriving in Kosovo "will be under U.N. auspices," and he did not mention NATO, a sign that he is seeking the political cover of the United Nations to sell the peace deal domestically.

"These troops will have their prime responsibility to ensure the safety of all citizens," he said.

There was little surprise at the stance of the Milosevic regime.

"What did you expect from the government, to admit its defeat? No way," said Slobodan Vuksanovic, vice president of the opposition Democratic Party.

Vuksanovic said the country had suffered "a complete defeat, a complete catastrophe," and that no amount of media manipulation would help authorities once soldiers return home with tales from Kosovo's front lines.

But the post-war media blitz underlined how the regime hangs on -- with carefully scripted news and pronouncements that bear little relation to reality.

Yesterday's edition of Politika, the authoritative daily newspaper, carried the headline: "The victory of the policy of peace led by Yugoslavia and President Milosevic."

Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic continued the offensive, claiming the country had "achieved a great success." He told an international news conference that the Yugoslav military "acted honorably" in fighting the "mightiest alliance of the world and achieving a great moral victory."

Vujovic also sought to resurrect the notion that Yugoslavia is somehow the guardian of peace in the Balkans, even though it has ignited and lost four wars this decade. And he claimed that "Milosevic is the man who is key to solving" regional problems.

Asked about Milosevic's status as an indicted war criminal, Vujovic said: "I'm not going to dignify that question with an answer."

On the streets, people took the latest setback in stride.

"I'm looking on it like a capitulation, but not of the army, of the government," said Bozo Koprivica, a 46-year-old writer, who was strolling the city's main pedestrian precinct.

"There is nothing to celebrate," said Milja, an 18-year-old student who would give only her first name.

"So many people dead, so many young people," she said. "The country is destroyed. We will starve. It will be a very long winter. Electrical system, water supplies, damaged. The country is destroyed."

Milja added, "People will not believe we have won."

But Ruzica Minic, a 40-year-old housewife, said: "Of course, this is a victory. We succeeded in defending our land, and Kosovo remained inside Yugoslavia."

"Nobody can take Kosovo from us," said Dragana Stamenkovic, 33, who sells cheese and salami in a small shop.

"No way should we change the government," said Spasdnaja Kostic, 60. "We have our historic victory."

Milka Jokic, a 58-year-old egg-seller, wasn't so sure who'd won. And she didn't celebrate news of the war's end because "there are so many dead people."

"Our future is pretty dark and destroyed," she said. "I think the time for changes is coming."

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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