Home > 1997-1999 from the Balkans, Kosovo, Serbia, Yougoslavia > MILOSEVIC USING KOSOVO CRACKDOWN TO RALLY SERB SUPPORT

MILOSEVIC USING KOSOVO CRACKDOWN TO RALLY SERB SUPPORT

March 22, 1998

by Guy Dinmore, Special to the Tribune, March 22, 1998

BELGRADE Events over the last year have dealt various blows to Slobodan Milosevic, but
by reviving the old battle cry of Kosovo, the president of what is left of federal Yugoslavia is
seeking to rally Serbs around him in a rearguard action to shore up his waning powers.
That may help to explain why he is allowing a crackdown on Albanians in Kosovo, even at
the risk of provoking stronger sanctions against Yugoslavia.

The risks are great. A decade ago, Milosevic, then a communist party apparatchik,
outmaneuvered his rivals by fanning the flames of Serbian nationalism in the southern
province of Kosovo–at the cost of destroying former Yugoslavia. Analysts say that by
returning to the scene of his former triumphs, Serbia’s strongman may yet bring about his
final undoing.

“Milosevic is trying to get stronger through Kosovo,” said Stojan Cerovic, a political
commentator. “Domestic factors played a large role in his decision to start another
conflict.”

The first serious setback to Milosevic came a year ago when mass street protests
forced him to recognize sweeping opposition victories in local elections. Then, in
September, his ruling Socialist Party lost its parliamentary majority in Serbia and his ally
was defeated by a pro-Western reformist in presidential elections in the smaller Yugoslav
republic of Montenegro.

This year saw the Serb half of Bosnia slip from his grasp with the appointment of a new
moderate government ready to hand over suspected war criminals and allow Moslem and
Croat refugees to return to their homes.

In Kosovo, birthplace of the first Serbian kingdom in medieval times and still revered for
its ancient Orthodox monasteries, Milosevic has rediscovered a ready cause for uniting a
country lurching further to the nationalist right.

The omens were good. Before Serbian police began their offensive late last month
against a small group of ethnic Albanian rebels, a poll showed that 41.8 percent of Serbs
believed the solution to the Kosovo problem was the removal, by force or peaceful means,
of its ethnic albanian majority.

In the poll of 400 Serbs of higher-than-average education, more than a third agreed
that “the ethnic purity of every nation should be aspired to.”

Last year, a declaration blessed by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle and signed
by 60 prominent intellectuals accused “the world’s power mongers” of victimizing the
Serbian nation. They demanded that Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb wartime
leader and now a fugitive, be cleared of all charges leveled by the UN war crimes tribunal.
Sonja Biserko, head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, believes
that this collective reluctance to come to terms with the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnian
Muslims and Croats has given Milosevic the confidence to use force in Kosovo against
ethnic Albanians. “This is a historical debacle for this nation. The mainstream of academic
thought is xenophobia,” she said.

Such views place Biserko in a tiny minority. Serbia’s disparate opposition parties have
toed the government line in the interests of national unity, abandoning a plan to block the
federal budget that could have led to fresh elections.

On Tuesday, six months after losing its parliamentary majority, Milosevic’s Serbian
Socialist Party will finally announce the composition of a new government. Coalition talks
with the monarchist Serbian Renewal Movement appear to have failed but the Socialists
may get the support of Vojislav Seselj, a former paramilitary leader who heads the ultra-
nationalist Radicals.

For most ordinary Serbs, whose priority is the daily struggle to survive, state television
and radio are the only sources of information. The well-oiled propaganda machine ensures
that the official view prevails. Radmila Milentijevic, the Serbian information minister, denies
reports of summary executions and says the Albanian women and children who died were
either used as “human shields” or were killed by the “terrorists” themselves.

This version of events finds ready acceptance on the streets of Belgrade. “I support
Milosevic 1,000 percent. Kosovo is our land, Serbian land. Underline that several times,”
said Vlasta Jelic, a 65-year-old concert violinist. “The Albanians killed their own people,
just as the Muslims did in Bosnia so that the West would impose sanctions.”

Grujica Spasovic was one of five editors of independent newspapers questioned by
police for running the headline “dead Albanians” instead of “dead terrorists,” as the victims
were officially described by the Interior Ministry. “Most people don’t know the truth of what
is happening in Kosovo because they only watch state television. But we are stronger and
bigger than before, and that’s the reason why we are dangerous to this regime,” said
Spasovic, chief editor of the daily Danas.

His newspaper is not alone in receiving death threats from Serbs, but at the same time,
its small circulation has risen. Ognjen Pribicevic, a sociologist, believes a vast majority of
Serbs see Kosovo as their Holy Land and support the policies of Milosevic, if not the man
himself. “The Serbs do not treat the Albanians as equal. They treat them as uncivilized,
very primitive, dirty . . . as humans of a lower profile. Of course, Milosevic was the person
who opened the bottle and let the devil out, but these feelings are much older than
Milosevic.”

Kosovo is still regarded as far away and poverty-stricken. The prevailing sense of
political apathy in Serbia means that while many tacitly support Milosevic and would
probably endure further sanctions by the West, few would be ready to go down there and
fight. With the dreams of a greater Serbia dashed on the battlefields of Bosnia-
Herzegovina and Croatia and finally by U.S. airstrikes, the Serbs have no more appetite
for war.

Miso Kolaravic, a 27-year-old veterinary student, says Milosevic was right to crack
down on the small but growing army of militant Albanian separatists in Kosovo, but he is
skeptical of his real motivations. “I don’t think Milosevic can solve the problem there, and
he doesn’t really want to because he stays in power by stealing votes in Kosovo,”
Kolaravic said, referring to how the Socialists resorted to stuffing ballot boxes in the
province to ensure victory for Milosevic’s ally in the Serbian presidential election.
Milosevic, say Belgrade commentators, is treading a fine line. Too aggressive a policy
in Kosovo could lead to additional Western sanctions, further debilitating Yugoslavia’s
crumbling economy. Milosevic survived last year financially by selling 49 percent of
Telecom Serbia to Telecom Italia and OTE of Greece. Plans to sell more state assets will
be jeopardized by two measures agreed on by the five main Western powers this month: a
ban on government credits to Yugoslavia and withdrawal of financial support for setting up
its privatization program. The state sector is starved for cash. Workers and pensioners
wait several months for their payments. Unemployment is running at over 30 percent, and
the economy at about half the level it reached in 1990, before former Yugoslavia
disintegrated in war.

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