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Yugoslav capital endures crisis; Belgrade residents await elusive solution to Kosovo showdown


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Brane Popovic says he is sick and tired of Serbs being portrayed as "the mad dogs of the world."

During a decade of defeat, the 52-year-old textile engineer has seen his country shrink, army beaten, political hopes dashed, and international status evaporate. Now, he has little stomach for the Serbs' latest fight to keep control over the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo.

"It is a lost cause for the Serbs," Popovic says. "We should get rid of Kosovo without fighting and without blood. But this is a never-ending story."

Once again, Belgrade's citizens are pondering their fate and preparing for the worst, as the West steps up the pressure to resolve another blood feud in Yugoslavia. Negotiators in France are trying to forge a deal over Kosovo, where more than 2,000 have died in yearlong fighting to control land where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9-to-1.

A four-hour drive from Belgrade, Kosovo and its problems often seem a world away.

But with the West threatening NATO airstrikes to bring Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to heel, the crisis is again hitting home in Belgrade.

"Are you going to bomb or should we paint the house?" reads a slogan scribbled on one ramshackle building in the city.

Gallows humor has long sustained Belgrade's beleaguered residents, who cram into dilapidated buses, show up for jobs that pay a pittance, and wait in long lines for cooking oil and sugar.

"This place is ugly and dirty and only those who are born here can like it," Popovic says. "I will never leave."

Popovic hopes the latest crisis can lead to a break in Yugoslavia's fractured modern history. Unlike many here, he would accept the presence of NATO ground forces to police a peace in Kosovo.

"Do you know the story of the Yugoslav freedom fighters and the Nazis fighting over a forest?" he asks. "They fight over the land until, finally, the forester comes along and throws them both out of the forest.

"Maybe NATO is the forester," he says.

Others view NATO as the enemy.

Serbia's deputy prime minister, Vojislav Seselj, spouts the sort of rhetoric that arouses passions in this land. He advises NATO troops to stay out of Kosovo.

"They will need much more than guns and ammunition," he says. "They will need caskets if they attack us."

Most residents aren't quite as belligerent as the ultranationalist leader.

"Kosovo is tiring me out," says Dejan Stevanic, a 25-year-old taxi driver. "NATO troops can come. But Kosovo can't go. It is Serb land."

Daliborka Jelic, a 29-year-old law clerk, says Serbs are deluding themselves if they believe Kosovo will remain in their hands. She is a Serb refugee who fled fighting in Mostar, Bosnia, seven years ago near the start of the modern Balkan wars.

"I came to Belgrade on a military plane," she says. "I thought I would be back home in 15 to 20 days. But I'm never going back. But I was lucky to be on that plane. The Serbs who live in Kosovo won't be so lucky."

Most here feel powerless to control events. In recent months, Milosevic has used the Kosovo crisis as a cover to exert greater power over society, reshuffling top government posts while cracking down on dissident college professors and the news media.

Dragan Vuosevic, editor of European Magazine, was fined heavily and forced to cut back publication and distribution after running afoul of authorities over commentary critical of Milosevic.

But he also is critical of the West for not being more aggressive in supporting democratic forces. "I don't think NATO and the U.S. are interested in democracy here," he says. "For all this time, they truly supported Milosevic."

Even as western leaders lose patience with Milosevic, there is a growing realization that the Kosovo crisis can only be defused when the Yugoslav leader agrees to a deal. Milosevic sent a powerless negotiating team to talks in Rambouillet, France. Many think the deal won't be worked out at Rambouillet and that Milosevic is merely setting the stage for final, face-to-face negotiations with America's Balkan trouble-shooters.

"We know it will finish back here in Belgrade, we just don't know how Milosevic will explain his loss," says Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst and publisher of the VIP Daily newsletter. "Kosovo is finished, a lost case for the Serbs."

One western diplomat is concerned that Milosevic, a master of Balkan brinkmanship, might lose his sense of timing. In October, he took NATO to the brink before stepping back and agreeing to a cease-fire and verification mission in Kosovo.

"It's up to Milosevic," the diplomat says. "He could want it to go up to or beyond the point of bombing. He is a master of timing. The only fear is his watch would be a minute slower than NATO's."

People here wait. Some pray. With its monasteries and churches, and 14th-century Kosovo Polje battlefield, Kosovo remains an evocative symbol of religious faith and national identity.

"For 500 years, the region of Kosovo was not in Serb hands," says the Rev. Radomir Popovic, dean of the Serbian Orthodox theological faculty. "Since 1912, it has been part of Serbia. We might physically lose Kosovo, but in 50, or 500 years, it might be ours again."

The bearded priest and teacher remains confident that the churches and monasteries will be preserved and is hopeful that the crisis will be resolved peacefully. He doesn't even fear bombing, telling a visitor from America: "Say hello to NATO."

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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