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Milosevic may thrive on threat from West; Serb leader's defiance aids standing at home


WASHINGTON -- Western threats against Slobodan Milosevic have put the Yugoslav president right where he likes to be -- at the center of an international crisis.

Some analysts say those threats may strengthen his grip on power, undercutting the long-term American goal of replacing his Belgrade regime with more democratic leadership.

Facing worldwide criticism after his security forces were blamed for the massacre of ethnic Albanians a week ago, Milosevic responded with a show of defiance, halting international investigators at the border and ordering the expulsion of an American envoy.

While Milosevic turned the criticism to domestic advantage -- showing fellow Serbs that the world again was ganging up on them -- a succession of powerful Western envoys trooped to Belgrade to negotiate with him.

"This is all about stirring the pot and turning up the heat occasionally. He shows everybody who's boss," says John Fox, a former State Department specialist on Eastern Europe.

An old-style Eastern European communist who is blamed for arousing Serb aggression in neighboring Bosnia, Milosevic remains in power as his economy sinks and his country effectively shrinks.

Battered by years of sanctions, Serbia remains cut off from the key sources of international finance that have helped some of its neighbors rebound from Communism. Living standards are falling, the unofficial unemployment rate is about 40 percent, pensions and salaries are paid late, and gangsterism is rampant, says a Western diplomat based in Belgrade.

A long time in power

Having seen the former Yugoslavia break up into Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia, Milosevic is losing control over Montenegro, the only other remaining state of the former Yugoslavia, which recently picked a government friendly to the West.

Yet Milosevic is now in his 12th year as the most powerful man in Yugoslavia, having become chief of the Communist Party in 1987.

"He's the longest-serving leader in Europe now, by some years," says Fox.

When Milosevic became leader, many Western diplomats and bankers saw him as an ally and hope for the future, according to Susan Woodward, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in her book, "Balkan Tragedy."

At important moments over the past decade, key Western diplomats have regarded Milosevic as the man who could make things happen in the Balkans, as his political fortunes seemed to rise and fall.

Keeping up the relationship

In 1992, former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who played a key role in international peace efforts after the breakup of Yugoslavia, was "firmly of the view that though [Milosevic's] star was waning we must keep up a relationship with him," writes David Owen, the former British foreign secretary who was Vance's partner.

During the Bosnian war, Milosevic remained behind the scenes as his allies in the Bosnian Serb leadership racked up a record of ethnic brutality not seen in Europe since World War II. He emerged as a power broker in late 1995 when the United States, backed for the first time by serious NATO air power, pushed for a settlement.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the American special envoy whose shuttle diplomacy led to the 1995 Dayton accords, refused to shake hands with Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic and Radko Mladic, both of whom have been indicted as war criminals. He unapologetically shared long meals with Milosevic as they worked out an end to the Bosnian war.

Arsonist and fireman

Holbrooke, who has described Milosevic as both the arsonist and the fireman of the Balkans, returned to negotiate with the Yugoslav leader in Belgrade last October as the civil war in the Serbian province of Kosovo escalated out of control.

Kosovo, site of the Serbs' 14th-century defeat at the hands of the Turks, has been used by Milosevic for a decade to heighten his appeal to Serbian nationalists.

Under renewed threat of NATO air strikes, Milosevic agreed to a cease-fire and a pullback of his security forces, and to accept about 2,000 unarmed international monitors and negotiate with the ethnic Albanian leadership.

By virtually all accounts, neither Milosevic nor the Kosovo Liberation Army has lived up to the agreements. But the United States puts blame for the grossest violations on the Serbs under Milosevic's control.

In turning up the heat, NATO leaders in some ways were doing Milosevic a favor.

The Yugoslav press, over which he wields a powerful influence, has accused the United States of using the Kosovo crisis as an excuse to bomb the Serbs -- a reflection of a bunker mentality that has been reinforced by continued sanctions.

Over the past few days, high-level envoys have visited Milosevic, starting with NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, and including the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Knut Vollebaek.


"When people come, he postures as an important statesman -- he likes this kind of brinkmanship," said the diplomat in Belgrade.

Development of the new Kosovo crisis coincided with increased threats to Milosevic's power and stepped-up efforts by the United States to develop an opposition that could replace him.

In a sign of insecurity late last year, Milosevic cracked down on independent media and the academic community, leading some observers to speculate that his regime was cracking.

The United States has put more money and effort into working with his opponents in a bid to democratize the country.

Tougher U.S. stance

State Department spokesman James Rubin signaled a tougher stance toward Milosevic last month, saying, "He is not simply part of the problem; Milosevic is the problem."

Since then Milosevic appears to have recovered by bringing former adversaries into his government.

"He's shown remarkable resilience," says Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Some analysts believe efforts to topple Milosevic are negated by the threats and attention being expended on him. A shrewd judge of Western unity and willingness to act, he is unimpressed by threats and may be willing to accept some bombing, according to Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

"The day they say, 'We don't talk to Milosevic because he's a thug' is the day you know they're serious," said Ivo Daalder, a Balkans expert at Brookings.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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