Ignoring Scars, Milosevic Is Stubbornly Pressing On

The New York Times
October 30, 1999

BELGRADE, Serbia -- Slobodan Milosevic -- gray and remote, internationally isolated and politically unpopular, charged with war crimes, his army restive and its reservists outraged, his economy ruined and his factories bombed, his refineries and electricity system smashed and his sources of fuel unclear, his roads and railways holed and his bridges collapsed -- has not only survived the loss of Kosovo, but gained a second wind.

How he has managed to do so over the last five months is a testament to his grit, preparation and peculiar world view, as well as to his strict control over the levers of the state.

Through the police, the army and the official news media, he has sown fear and uncertainty and belittled any pretenders to his throne, while deepening the divisions among his opposition. The possibility of a violent explosion is always here in this bruised, sometimes desperate nation. But with less need than ever to please the West, Milosevic has shown a tougher, combative, intimidating side and intensified the sense of threat in the society, being more willing, even avid, to beat protesters, shut down newspapers and send people to jail.

The Milosevic era may be coming to an end, but it will not happen quickly. He has made clear that he will not be forced from his office as Yugoslavia's President without a fight for which his opponents lack the courage and the troops, and he has managed to extend a degree of confidence to the rest of his regime.

He has also benefited from the manifold mistakes of his divided enemies, both foreign and domestic, to become a sort of European Saddam Hussein -- isolated, unpopular, but apparently unmovable.

In late August, sensing the panic in his regime after the loss of Kosovo and a sizable opposition rally in Belgrade, Milosevic summoned the leaders of his party to stop the rot.

According to some who were there, he said the main task was to get through the winter, week by week, month by month. While opposition figures try to finish NATO's job and pull him down, and all of them with him, he said, the Government and the party must concentrate on the reconstruction of the country and patriotic activities of all kinds.

They must rebuild the bridges and the power and heating plants, and insure that every person whose house or apartment was destroyed by a NATO bomb had a new dwelling for the winter.

"Our companies must provide and help," he said, implying that it was time for those who had made money from their coziness with the Milosevic clan to stump up, for their own preservation. "We need full mobilization of every segment in order to achieve the maximum."

The world would change, he said. President Clinton would go. The Russians would elect a new President, more nationalist, closer to Serbia. The world was tired of American hypocrisy and hegemony, he said. The Europeans understood that the region needs Serbia. Just hang on. He would outlast them all, he said.

Whatever his peculiarities, Milosevic, now 58 years old, is described by everyone who meets him as possessing a strong will and an aura of confidence, and he rarely shows fear or unease. During the war, as one air-raid siren sounded 10 seconds after the others, he turned to a visitor with a genuine grin, saying, "That one's always late."

He is fond of indulging in the Serbian pastime of vulgar speech in private, over whisky and cigars, as a way of establishing intimacy, and he draws others out, leading them on to judge their loyalty, while keeping his real feelings to himself.

He listens but makes his own decisions in private, usually after consulting his wife, Mirjana Markovic, whom he met at 17 and with whom he shares an extremely close and obsessional relationship.

He tends to stay out of the limelight, though he is making a few more public appearances these days, to show his vitality. Still, as is habit when he appears on the state television news, an announcer summarizes his comments, and his voice is rarely heard. He is a distant patriarch, generally floating above the swamp of daily politics and squabbles.

In what one Serbian analyst calls a "Slobocentric universe," created over the last 10 years of international isolation, he sits, like a gnomic sultan, high above a ruined landscape where he remains the arbiter of what few benefits are still to be had. Aleksandr Tijanic, Milosevic's former spokesman, calls him "an element in the Serbian periodic table."

He cultivates and drops allies with political acumen, using influence, money and pressure. Currently, he favors the ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, a tough politician who has brandished a gun outside Parliament and punched opponents, to protect his right wing and to threaten his foes.

In a group, according to those who know him, Milosevic is a stiff, self-conscious and rather clumsy man, with the fake air of a Roman senator, and he carries himself with a kind of artificial dignity, despising flattery and imitation.

Here, in a meeting of his Socialist Party of Serbia's Glavni Odbor, or main committee, Milosevic was both steely and soothing.

"If anyone feels tired, he may feel free to withdraw," he said calmly. "I will understand this. I have nothing against this." Then he paused. "We are still a rasadnik for cadres," he said, using the Serbian word for tree nursery. "We have so many cadres that we could make 20 more governments as good as the one we have now."

Despite such an invitation, despite the West's ban on foreign travel for more than 300 Milosevic associates, and despite the most fervent hopes of the Clinton Administration and the divided Serbian opposition, no one of any consequence has left the Milosevic Government. There has been no significant split, not even any large cracks.

His indictment on charges of war crimes weakened him, but the simultaneous indictment of four top aides -- including his most plausible internal successor, the Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic -- was an additional inducement for Milosevic's elite to stick together.

He has maneuvered within narrow boundaries and with few resources to underline his control over the country and the fate of its people, especially those who fear losing what little they have left. His Government and his crony capitalists have gone into high gear to fix the war damage, covered lavishly on state television, which he has controlled throughout his 12-year rule, and they have secured contracts somehow for Russian natural gas, so people do not freeze this winter.

He has made sure that the police get paid, that his nationalist right wing is covered, and that his opposition is excoriated for its weakness and divisions, while painting the opponents as agents of the very countries that bombed Serbia.

He has been greatly aided in making those charges by his control over the state news media, especially broadcasting. But he is able to make them so plausibly only because of two developments that the West should have been able to control, officials close to him say.

First, the chaos in Kosovo, where NATO has not prevented the flight of Serbs in the face of organized Albanian revenge and the destruction of treasured Serbian monasteries and churches. A democratic, multiethnic Kosovo would have hurt Milosevic badly, making Serbs wonder what the war was all about. There is in the population considerable knowledge and some shame over the deaths of at least 10,000 Kosovo Albanians, by Western estimates, and the expulsion of some 800,000.

But the current state of Kosovo and the mistreatment of even innocent Serbs let the regime argue that Washington forced the war on Belgrade, which could not win. The inability of the West to bring order to Kosovo or to control Albanian crime underlines the message sent by most Serbian news media that Milosevic had no option but to fight the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, even if the war was fought with all the atrocities that Bosnia made so familiar.

Feeding the sense of paranoia and victimization on which Milosevic survives are the perceptions of many Serbs about the West's attitudes toward them: its embrace of collective guilt and its lip service toward Belgrade's sovereignty.

Second, the United States and the West made an open embrace of opposition figures like Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party and his rival, Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement, urging them to overthrow Milosevic in a popular uprising, without a democratic process. By meeting them in Montenegro, in public, and providing them with money, however late or limited, Western diplomats made it easy for Milosevic and his news media to portray the opposition as paid agents of NATO, continuing its war against Belgrade.

The Serbs, who rarely see themselves as the world does, do not need much prodding to feel that they are the victims of an American vendetta against one man in a highly personalized battle, antithetical to America's democratic values, to save the reputations of President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

The Americans are perceived as promoting revolution against a despised but elected leader. That revolution is supposed to be assisted by the American-promoted deprivation of the Serbian people, by their lack of heat, gasoline and food, while Washington tries to veto European efforts to provide such assistance even to opposition-run towns.

"With enemies like NATO and the Serbian opposition," says Aleksa Djilas, a political scientist who has followed Milosevic's career, "Milosevic doesn't need many friends." He thrives on an atmosphere in which Serbs feel the world is being biased and unfair, an autism only aided by 10 years of Washington-driven isolation of Serbia.

Like any incumbent, Milosevic benefits from this atmosphere of emergency and threat, hardly exaggerated when Washington makes his overthrow the explicit price of any aid or reintegration for the Serbs. Even Serbs who agonize over the killings and expulsions of Kosovo's Albanians find this blackmail hard to take.

After all, argues Milan Milosevic, a veteran analyst at the independent Vreme magazine who is no relation to the President, Milosevic was the supreme commander in a war for the fatherland against an enemy 60 times stronger. Given that "his head is one of the declared war aims, it's not entirely cynical for him to argue that the war continues by other means and to justify wartime measures," Milan Milosevic said.

Milosevic himself, says Djilas, has an extraordinary stamina that derives from his own calculation of interests. "In politics, as in war, defeat is often when you think you're defeated," he said. "If you don't recognize defeat, or you don't show it, you can last a great deal longer."

By any objective terms, Milosevic should be finished. He wanted to be a Serbian Tito. But Yugoslavia continues to unravel, and Serbia has lost its fourth war in nine years: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo, which was an integral part of Serbia itself. With Montenegro restive and aiming for independence, the orbit of Serbian control has shrunk to its smallest this century.

Serbia is home to some 700,000 refugees and internally displaced people -- an estimated 200,000 from Kosovo alone. That represents nearly a tenth of the Serbs in the Balkans. As Djindjic has said, "Four times the Serbs have gone forth on tanks, and four times they have come back on tractors."

Real unemployment is widespread, the Serbian economy is a third its size in 1989, and average wages are now below 80 German marks a month, or about $45.

But Milosevic is in a good mood nonetheless, says a man who has seen him regularly, having constructed his own peculiar notion of how the world now works. For a man who fancies himself a worldly figure and likes nothing better than visits from American crisis solvers like Richard C. Holbrooke, the isolation in which Milosevic now lives is exasperating.

Milosevic once worked as a banker in New York, and he talks about America all the time, the man said. He seems not to understand that while he was indispensable to the United States for regional security after the 1995 Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian war, he now has little left to offer. He still believes that the Americans will understand the importance of Serbia to the region, as the Europeans do. He fails to see that Serbian atrocities in Kosovo, which he regards as an internal matter and less severe than in Bosnia, have altered views in America and made him an untouchable pariah.

Milosevic regards the Clinton Administration as having gone mad, this visitor said. "He can't believe that the American leadership has been hoodwinked into supporting the Kosovo Liberation Army and 'the narco-traffickers, black marketeers and mafiosos' of Albania," the man said, using Milosevic's own terms. "He says the only survival is internal, that we've got to save ourselves until sanity befalls them. He says: 'I've got to run my country and rebuild. While they were bombing, we were planting.' "

Milosevic, who does not always get a balanced view from cowed and relatively unsophisticated aides, regards the current anathema aimed at him as wholly personal, because he would not play to the American script and give up Kosovo after a few days of bombing, the man said.

"He thinks he'll be there after they're gone and writing their memoirs, and that someone else will come along, George Bush Jr., with less passion about him and more sensible answers. He feels like he's defending his country and fought a bloody civil war, and he's not making nuclear weapons and selling them to anybody with cash or threatening anybody else."

While he has failed as a Serbian Tito, he sees himself as leading a new nonaligned movement, of countries like Russia, China, India and Belarus, who reject Washington's hegemony. Yet much of this is wishful thinking, and his heart still appears to lie in America.

Those who see him frequently say he is beginning to believe that fresh elections, much as Draskovic has called for, not only can be won, but will be an answer to Serbia's postwar isolation. If the ruling coalition now of his Socialists, his wife's Yugoslav United Left party, and Seselj's ultranationalist Radicals, running a single slate of candidates, can win the next Serbian elections, there will be new legitimacy, his officials say.

Even if they do not win a majority, as is more likely, given his political weakness and the fatigue of 12 years of Government, they believe that the opposition will not win a majority either. They believe that some part of the opposition -- in particular Draskovic, who started the war as a deputy prime minister -- will be willing to make a deal with Milosevic.

All that may be wrong, of course. The 70 percent who consistently tell pollsters that they want a new Government may have the nerve to vote for one in the polling booths. And the United States' pressure on Draskovic -- plus his own continuing anger at what he regards as a regime-directed attempt on his life in early October -- may be enough to keep him from again making a deal.

But elections would leave Milosevic in his post. And the essence of his power has never been elections so much as his ability to create inner conflict, discredit his opposition, manage self-created crises and rule beyond the institutions he himself has degraded.

In a recent poll of 1,500 Serbs published in NIN magazine, there were startling figures that go a long way toward explaining the survival of Slobodan Milosevic.

Asked who was the first person they thought of as Serbia's leader, 34.9 percent of the respondents answered, "no one." Milosevic came second, with 18.3 percent. Third came "undecided," with 16.8 percent. The top opposition figure was Draskovic, with 5.4 percent. Djindjic got 3.7 percent, and Seselj got 3 percent.

In an isolated, fearful universe where nearly 52 percent of the people are unable to articulate an alternate leader for Serbia, the man who commands a solid 20 percent of the vote can remain king.

But the current mood of tentative confidence should not disguise the fear in early June, as Milosevic accepted NATO's ultimatum and agreed to pull out of Kosovo.

The regime was in a significant panic, unsure of what to do, acknowledged Ljubisa Ristic, the president of the vanity party that Milosevic created for his wife and that serves as one of several ways to funnel private money into the regime. But it was obvious that the West's final offer, negotiated with the Russians, had to be taken, Ristic said.

The Serbs could not shoot down NATO aircraft, despite propaganda claims. It was the last moment to save the civilian population of Belgrade from a more permanent loss of bridges, electricity and infrastructure, Ristic said, while acknowledging that it was also the best moment for Milosevic and the regime to save themselves.

Close aides found the courage to tell Milosevic that he should not reject this deal only to accept a worse one later.

Faced with an ultimatum, an imminent NATO decision to introduce ground troops if the war continued much longer and a threat that Belgrade would soon lose its bridges and electrical power, the officials say, Milosevic decided to take an offer that included benefits he could sell at home. A peace settlement would be sanctioned by the United Nations, as the war never was. Kosovo would be explicitly left in Belgrade's sovereignty, with no reference to any referendum on its future status, a form of absurdity in a province so heavily Albanian. And Kosovo would be administered by the United Nations, not by NATO, which would also have to accept Russian troops as peacekeepers.

But the army generals were appalled, and so was Milosevic's key coalition partner, the ultranationalist Seselj, who had sworn that no foreign soldier would ever enter Kosovo.

Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, the commander of the Third Army Corps that controlled Kosovo as well as southern Serbia, was said to have been shocked by the sudden news of capitulation. He turned pale and sweaty, slumping silently in the back of his car.

But General Pavkovic did not rebel, remembering Milosevic's methodical humiliation of the army from 1992-95 as he built up the police, gave them military equipment and military ranks, and paid them three times better. And General Pavkovic, just weeks later, served Milosevic by calming angry army reservists who wanted their combat pay and by warning the opposition that the army would defend the legitimate Government.

Seselj was a harder problem. In a late-night meeting with party leaders after accepting the NATO-Russian offer, Milosevic asked for Seselj's support in a parliamentary vote the next day.

Milosevic told him that if he could not vote for the deal, he should at least abstain. Seselj said that he was not sure he could even do that. But if the party voted against the deal, Milosevic said, Seselj must promise not to pull down the Government in the Parliament.

The next day, Seselj and his Radicals voted against and vowed to leave the Serbian Government out of protest. But they remained. Not only that, but as opposition protests peaked and then began to wane, Seselj agreed to join the federal Government as well, taking the seats vacated by Draskovic.

Still, the failure of Djindjic to bring large numbers of protesters into the streets was a happy surprise for the Government. There had been serious talk earlier in the summer about a deal with Draskovic that would have made him Serbian Prime Minister of a transitional Government, with Milosevic stepping back toward a more constitutional role as Yugoslav President, officials say. Some businessmen in or close to the Government, like Bogoljub Karic and Milan Beko, found themselves on the list of 300 or so Milosevic associates barred from travel or tending their assets abroad and approached Draskovic to hedge their bets.

But the United States objected fiercely to the idea that Milosevic would remain in office at all and threatened Draskovic himself with indictment on war crimes charges stemming from the activities of his short-lived Serbian Guard in the Croatian war in 1991. To try to push Draskovic closer to the rest of the opposition, Washington also put him on the visa watch list, meaning that he could not travel to America.

It is not clear how much Milosevic himself, who usually uses go-betweens, was involved in these discussions with Draskovic. But they fell apart, the opposition wasted the summer, and Milosevic gained confidence.

In a rare speech Oct. 11 in Leskovac, where some of the first postwar unrest appeared, Milosevic acknowledged that life is hard for most people in Serbia. "It does not take CNN or Deutsche Welle to tell the citizens of this country that -- I, your president, am telling you that."

And he challenged the opposition, saying: "If citizens feel that despite all those misfortunes, there are representatives of the people who could insure a better life for a majority of the people, let them elect them at the next elections. And that is all I have to say on that subject."