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In Belgrade, Few Are Listening to a Ticking Clock

February 20, 1999

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: February 20, 1999
Author: R. Jeffrey Smith ; Guy Dinmore

With a noon Saturday deadline for possible NATO airstrikes fast approaching, an air of unreality settled once again today over this isolated Yugoslav capital. Streets were thronged with window- shoppers, no military reservists were called up, and few people talked about the impending crisis in bars or at offices. Panic was nowhere to be seen.

Many newspapers, fearful of violating a strict censorship law approved during a previous NATO bombing threat last October, played down the idea that a military clash looms. They forecast that after the West’s deadline for a deal in the Kosovo peace talks passes, the Yugoslav-Serbian and ethnic Albanian negotiators gathered outside Paris will simply return to the table and keep working through the details.

A mixture of ambivalence, apathy and frustration seems to grip many citizens, as indicated by graffiti scrawled on the side of a tumbledown building in the Belgrade suburbs: “NATO,” it asks in Serbo-Croatian, “are you going to bomb us or shall we paint the house?”

“I’m too pessimistic to worry,” said Vukica Djilas, 50, as she walked along a downtown shopping street. “I’ve been living here for 50 years.” Djilas is the daughter of Milovan Djilas, a famed Serbian dissident during the Communist era.

Few residents appear to question that NATO troops eventually will wind up in Kosovo as part of a peace settlement, despite the stated refusal of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept such a deployment. But no one here likes the idea much, having concluded from the history of NATO’s involvement in Bosnia that the alliance is anti-Serb — a belief that has been heavily promoted in state-run media.

“People remember that NATO bombed the Serbs in Bosnia,” said Aleksandar Drakulic, 23, who moved to Belgrade from Bosnia in 1995 and now sells magazines on the street. “It would be better if some force other than NATO came to Kosovo.” But Drakulic is skeptical that the Serbs will rise up in anger if NATO bombs Serbian military targets. “A lot of people here think about what they will eat tomorrow, not about bombs,” he said.

If Milosevic really is prepared to accept a NATO deployment in the Serbian province for the right price, as many political analysts here say, he has not yet tried to prepare the public for his concession. They say he could depict a decision to accept a peace accord as a way to stop the yearlong war and tame the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel group fighting for the province’s independence.

Instead, Milosevic issued a defiant statement today that NATO’s bombing threat “will not lead to foreign occupation” by Western military forces, staking out a position that may be hard to retract. But many other statements made by senior government officials merely reiterate that Kosovo will not be surrendered, something that no foreign government has asked Yugoslavia to do.

The Western peace plan calls for a restoration of Kosovo’s autonomy but fails to meet the ethnic Albanians’ demands for independence. Many analysts here also say that Milosevic’s rhetoric typically toughens just before he makes a concession, as a way of covering his embarrassment. “The game is over, and it is our state’s loss,” Nebojsa Covic, a former Belgrade mayor who now heads an opposition party, told the Blic daily newspaper. “The show is on for the people now. They need to assure us that the historical defeat and loss {of Kosovo} is actually an incredible success . . . of Slobodan Milosevic for the preservation of the state’s integrity.”

According to Srbobran Brankovic, a sociologist and pollster, many Serbs still harbor strong feelings about Kosovo, with half wanting no change there and only 20 percent supporting more autonomy for the province and its ethnic Albanian majority. But Brankovic also has charted a significant shift in Serbian attitudes about the Dayton peace accord that ended the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, with many opposing it at first but a solid majority now supportive. “It’s not so difficult for Milosevic to persuade people to accept any political solution,” Brankovic said, referring to the president’s skilled manipulation of the media. “If official policy changes then people will too, and they would accept a NATO peace-keeping force, especially the part of the electorate that supports Milosevic and believes in everything he does.” Although Milosevic has taken the West to the brink of a military clash before — in October, when he agreed at the last minute to allow unarmed foreign inspectors in Kosovo — this episode may turn out to have a different ending, some analysts here say. Milosevic had good reasons to halt a military offensive by government troops in October, having run out of money to fund the combat and having accomplished many of his military goals. But this time, the ethnic Albanian rebels are growing stronger, and in the proposed agreement, Milosevic would have to grant ethnic Albanians political autonomy that he withdrew in 1989 during his rise to power. Moreover, his own troops are under new, more loyal command, and are prepared once more to battle the rebels. Djilas said that she knew all along that Milosevic would concede last October. But “this is the first time that I’m not sure what he’s going to do,” she said.

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