Serbian president transforms image to peacemaker


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- When it comes to Balkan politics, even the evidently simple things are neither evident nor simple.

Consider Slobodan Milosevic. A man until recently described as a ruthless tyrant bent on territorial aggrandizement and the creation of a "Greater Serbia," he suddenly has become a miraculous convert to the peace plan for Bosnia fashioned by Cyrus R. Vance and Lord Owen.

But is he for real? Or is this merely a piece of theater -- more subterfuge to remove the disgrace of the Bosnian war from himself while privately encouraging his Bosnian clones to continue defying the international community?

The consensus in Western embassies in Belgrade is that Mr. Milosevic's U-turn seems real enough and that he could be pressed into a "constructive" role to help achieve peace in Bosnia. Opinions differ on how constructive he could be.

A minority view is that Mr. Milosevic's concessions are tactical. Time is on his side, according to this view, and Mr. Milosevic -- a master of Byzantine maneuver -- is trying to placate an international community desperate to stop the war, calculating that that same community -- after a decent interval -- will wearily acquiesce to the Bosnian Serbs' de facto state, which eventually would vote for confederation with Serbia.

A majority contend that Mr. Milosevic abandoned the idea of a Greater Serbia when he realized his own political future was in danger. Tightened United Nations economic sanctions and the prospect of U.S. air strikes threatened Mr. Milosevic's power. He cut off weapons and ammunition to the Bosnian Serbs early this month.

"His lust for power is matched only by his disregard for the suffering he has caused," said a diplomat who has had extensive dealings with him.

Mr. Milosevic's about-face has incurred considerable political damage, especially among Serbs who live outside Serbia proper. He was openly accused of betraying their interests. Bosnian Serb deputies jeered him when he urged them to accept the Vance-Owen plan. The bearded gunmen in Bosnian mountains, who feel they have nothing to lose in their centuries-old struggle against the Muslims in the valleys, are no longer likely to follow his orders.

But in Serbia itself, Mr. Milosevic is still very much in charge. His control of television enables him to get his message across. The essentially agrarian Serbian population -- 30 percent of whom are functionally illiterate and 50 percent of whom have only a primary school education -- is strangely oblivious to the fact that Mr. Milosevic's policies have reduced Serbia to poverty and bankruptcy.

But Bosnia is a uniquely treacherous issue that could prove the undoing of even such a consummate politician as Mr. Milosevic. He will have to move slowly. His decision to shut the borders to all but humanitarian aid to Bosnian Serbs is not merely unpopular; it is unenforceable. An outside intervention against the Bosnian Serbs could well bring down the Milosevic regime.

In a rich irony, the real threat to Mr. Milosevic now comes not from the students and workers led by opposition parties, but from the political extremists with private armies and semi-criminal elements running Serbia's underground economy that have been promoted by his regime. Most of these groups support the Bosnian Serbs, as does the Serbian Orthodox Church.

A collapse of the Milosevic regime under the weight of corruption, lawlessness and extremism could be very nasty. This is what prompts many European diplomats to raise the question whether the 12-nation European Community should help bail out Mr. Milosevic "as a lesser evil and devil we know" or let the Serbs suffer the consequences of errors wrought their leaders.

"However tempting the latter may be, the dangers for the rest of Europe are probably too great," one senior diplomat said. "The risk is that the Serbs, in the process of sorting out their own national problems, could end up embroiling the rest of us in an even broader war provoked either by them or by their neighbors exploiting Serbia's weaknesses."

With Western policy in limbo after the defeat of a United Nations-backed peace plan in a Bosnian Serb referendum, Mr. Milosevic seems for the moment the key player.

"There's only one thing I'm sure of," said one European Community diplomat here. "Whatever we do, it's certain to be a mistake."

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