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Milosevic likely to outlast Clinton


ANOTHER DAY, another murder in Belgrade -- that's how it feels to many Serbs these days.

Prominent people -- a publisher, a former defense minister, notorious warlord Arkan (real name ZeljkoRaznjatovic) and many others -- are regularly being killed on streets, in hotel lobbies and in cafes, by anonymous assassins who then melt away.

The latest to be gunned down was the head of the Yugoslav national airline JAT. A common thread links the victims: their capacity to damage Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic or his wife and partner-in-power, Mira Markovic. Most, like Arkan or former defense minister Pavle Bulatovic, had information to substantiate Mr. Milosevic's indictment by the Hague war crimes tribunal.

Since JAT recently resumed flights and the corrupt elite relies on smuggling, one can imagine several reasons the JAT chief -- perhaps objecting to something, wanting too big a cut, planning to divulge information for asylum -- had to be rubbed out.

The slayings are just one symptom of a depressing truth. The U.S. administration may continue to insist that Mr. Milosevic was fatally weakened by NATO's 78-day assault on Serb forces last year. The truth is that he is in many ways stronger than ever, keeping power by ever more tyrannical means.

It is, of course, impossible to prove that the killings are linked to him; his government has blamed "foreign powers." But they come in tandem with other draconian measures of repression, including constant harassment of the small independent media, daily arrests of members of a potentially potent new student movement and the prevention last week of demonstrations in Mr. Milosevic's home town of Pozarevac.

Mr. Milosevic's chief instruments are his media -- particularly his Orwellian state-run TV -- and his police force of one policeman for every 100 citizens, one of the highest ratios in the world. The official media particularly exaggerates and exploits squabbles between main opposition figures, including Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic.

Mr. Milosevic passed one of his most severe tests: surviving the winter.

NATO spokesmen had predicted that electricity and heating shortages would bring his people onto the streets to overthrow him. But Mr. Milosevic is reported to have received loans and fuel from China as well as, perhaps, from Russia and Byelorus.

As in Iraq, the many shortages have hit ordinary people far harder than the elite. The average salary is less than $50 a month, buses regularly break down, hospitals are out of many medicines, the best and the brightest are long gone. A sense of hopelessness and insecurity prevails.

Recent opposition rallies may have produced a big turnout -- as high as 150,000 in Belgrade's main square. But there are no more fiery ideas of how to oust Mr. Milosevic apart from the ballot box: elections are not due until next year and he is a master at election manipulation.

Mr. Milosevic is now, slowly, achieving more victories. The sanctions are gradually crumbling, including the ban on flights. A trans-Atlantic split over the sanctions is deepening. The United States wants to hold a hard line. Most of its European allies(apart from Britain) argue that they have to be eased because the region, in Western Europe's back yard, cannot function without Serbia. European envoys are slowly drifting back to Belgrade.

In a twist of irony, Mr. Milosevic has been helped to stay in power by the NATO bombing even though a majority of Serbs dislike Mr. Milosevic. A recent poll put the number as high as 75 percent. But they equally dislike the NATO alliance for bombing them. And they have little faith in opposition leaders who are unable to put personal pettiness aside for the larger picture.

Visitors who have seen Mr. Milosevic recently describe him as outwardly confident. He tells them that he is awaiting the end of the Clinton administration and believes a Bush or Gore government will be distracted and more likely to go along with more indulgent Europeans.

He clearly has no intention of being ousted from the power he seized in 1987 by stirring Serb nationalism.

The State Department has this spring released "Wanted" posters offering up to a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and transport to the Hague. But it seems more likely that the outside world, and particularly Europe, will slowly start, once again, to do business with Europe's Saddam Hussein in the interests of regional stability.

British writer and journalist Louise Branson was Balkans correspondent for the Sunday Times of London from 1990 to 1996. She recently co-authored "Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant."

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