Bambi Park illustrates Milosevic staying power

Yugoslav president called `a master of day-to-day survival and of illusion'

July 04, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

POZAREVAC, Yugoslavia -- The bulldozers groaned, the welders sweated rivers and a feverish army of Serbian laborers poured concrete, gravel and paint yesterday as the son of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic personally orchestrated the furious pace of construction.

But in a nation where NATO bombs and missiles left a wasteland of broken bridges, smashed factories, ruined railways and impotent power plants, this madcap public works project was at none of the above.

It was Bambi Park, 6 acres of kiddie pools, skateboard runs, minicar courses and a pirate-ship playground -- along with the centrally located "Extreme Bar" for parents -- all in the heart of the president's hometown.

And the rush was on to meet this evening's advertised 7 o'clock grand opening -- an event organizers say will show how postwar Serbia is returning to normal.

Welcome to Pozarevac, the Milosevic family fortress in northeastern Serbia where the Yugoslav president was born, where he met and married his high school sweetheart and where his son, Marko, owns the local Madona Radio station, the Madona Discotheque, the Cybernet Internet-access provider and, now, one-third of the newest and fanciest playground in town.

Bambi Park, its hype and its 60-cent admission charge for the 88,000 residents of this war-battered city, along with the city itself, are apt metaphors, analysts say, for Milosevic's uncanny survival skills.

They illustrate how the Yugoslav leader has used patronage, paternalism, illusion and manipulation to remain in power -- tools that have helped him defy nearly a decade of war, a year of street protests, a 78-day NATO bombardment, a resignation call from the Serbian Orthodox Church and an international indictment on war crimes charges now accompanied by a $5 million U.S. reward for information leading to his arrest.

Moreover, at a time when the Clinton administration has, in effect, reduced the complexities of its Balkans policies to a single, postwar bottom line -- getting rid of Milosevic -- many Serbian analysts, opposition strategists and regime supporters say the Yugoslav leader is using those same survival tools to turn that policy against itself.

`Masterful politician'

"Milosevic has proved himself a masterful politician, even though he's never had any real strategy," said Ognjen Pribicevic, a prominent political scientist and now a top adviser to Yugoslavia's largest opposition party.

"He's a master of day-to-day survival -- and of illusion. And every time the West makes a move against him, they help him."

The American dump-Milosevic policy appears to have neutralized his most potent internal enemy, and it might radicalize his regime.

Vojislav Seselj, the self-styled fierce ultranationalist who heads the right-wing Serbian Radical Party, told reporters Thursday in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, that he is ready to join forces with Milosevic, if only to fight a common foe.

"As long as the Americans condemn Milosevic and demand his departure, we will not be against him," declared Seselj, whose extremist party has won wide new support here amid reports of postwar atrocities committed by Kosovo's ethnic Albanians against its Serbs.

Even several leaders of Serbia's centrist, pro-democracy parties, which have sought to rid Yugoslavia of Milosevic for a decade or more and now control about 90 percent of the nation's major cities and towns, appear to agree.

"What I fear may happen now is that anger will rise up against us, against the local opposition leaders in our badly damaged cities and towns, and that many people will think that Milosevic is the last person who can be blamed for all this," said Predreg Filipov, the pro-democracy deputy mayor of Novi Sad, the third-largest city in Serbia, which is Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

According to Filipov and other local opposition leaders who were swept to power by anti-Milosevic voters three years ago, if many in this country exonerate Milosevic, the United States and NATO have only themselves to blame.

NATO strategy misguided

"It's an amazing fact," Filipov said, "but NATO forces bombed just the biggest cities of Serbia that have been in the hands of the opposition since 1996. Perhaps they were trying to provoke panic and organize people against the regime. But under the conditions that have existed in this country during the war and exist even now, that is quite impossible."

Those "conditions," he and other regime critics say, include a fortress mentality that Milosevic has created in Serbia through eight years of war. As Yugoslavia has lost one region after another, beginning with Slovenia and ending with Kosovo, he has successfully projected Serbia as the Serbs' final bunker -- and himself as its last protector.

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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