Winning ugly

Despite his gaffes -- meeting with war criminal Arkan, praying with Milosevic and dissing the leader of the Kosovar Albanians -- Jesse Jackson gets his men.

Published May 3, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

Rev. Jesse Jackson and his interfaith delegation arrived in Belgrade last week with a seemingly impossible mission -- convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to release three American prisoners of war who have been held captive since March 31. And though it wasn't pretty, somehow Jackson scored.

Jackson apparently had not done a lot of homework before his freelance negotiating mission to the Balkans. This cultural gap was evident numerous times during Jackson's three-day visit to Belgrade. He twice shook hands with a wanted war criminal, and put former communists and atheists on the spot by asking them to join him in prayer -- but neglected to pray when he met with Serbia's religious leader, Patriarch Pavle, instead talking politics. He regularly used his staple "building bridges" metaphor -- which translates badly, summoning up images of men in hard hats, and seems insensitive anyway, given that Yugoslavia hardly has any actual bridges left, thanks to NATO's bombs. And his single-minded pursuit of winning the release of three American soldiers offended many Yugoslav officials who met with the delegation, especially against the backdrop of increased civilian casualties from NATO strikes while he was there.

Although Jackson's visit was full of incongruities, it was vintage Jackson and, somehow, it worked. As longtime Jackson collaborator Rabbi Steven Bennett Jacobs noted, "Jesse has that unique ability to not be judgmental. Jesse believes in Jesse and that's how he did it."

Jackson's blundering began the moment he arrived in Belgrade. The reverend drew a blank when a reporter asked him, "Will you meet with Rugova?" The reporter offered help, "Ibrahim Rugova?" but Jackson could not identify the leader of the Kosovar Albanians' political opposition movement.

That night Jackson greeted the infamous war criminal Arkan, who is wanted by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. The best photography prize went unclaimed -- a shot of Jackson and Arkan shaking hands. By the time photographers stampeded out of the Hyatt Tea Room to catch the shot, Jackson had already turned his back.

At his press conferences, Jackson never mentioned the hundreds of civilian casualties in Yugoslavia, nor the hundreds of thousands out of work -- the issues that hit home to locals. Nor did luck serve Jackson well. Belgrade was bombed to hell the night of his arrival. Three men died when missiles struck the Interior Ministry and the Army Headquarters building, and several were injured when stray missiles leveled two residential homes.

Jackson's first meeting the morning after Belgrade's heaviest bombing was with Serbian Patriarch Pavle, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Jackson and his delegation, still unaware how extensive was the damage caused by NATO's bombs, focused on obtaining the church's support for winning the release of three enemy soldiers.

While church officials were polite, behind the scenes they were put off by the delegation's insensitivity to local suffering. As Jackson spoke of building bridges, NATO was dropping leaflets near Belgrade warning that the last bridge over the Danube would soon be blown up.

Among Jackson's victories was the scene that was photographed and shown across the world's newspapers Sunday morning -- Jackson hand-in-hand with Milosevic and other Yugoslav leaders with their heads bowed. Only Jackson could do what no Serb would even dare try: get Milosevic to pray.

Milosevic and Jackson met Saturday afternoon, sauntering through the garden of a former royal palace as cameras looked on before meeting privately for 30 minutes. During his private meeting with Milosevic, Jackson emphasized an "opportunity to take a bold initiative," and that "a diplomatic risk might break the stalemate."

As Milosevic complained to Jackson about being demonized by the world media, NATO planes reinforced his gripe, dropping leaflets over Belgrade trashing the Serbian president.

Before Milosevic's surprise decision, Jackson's entourage was preparing for defeat. "Just seeing the soldiers was a victory," said Dr. Joan Campbell, general-secretary of the National Council of Churches. Did God really touch Milosevic's heart? Hard to say. But one thing is certain: The president's decision to release the three American prisoners was vintage Milosevic -- unpredictable.

While the decision wasn't particularly popular at home, Milosevic is desperately looking for a way out after nearly 40 days of bombing. The Yugoslav president may have also been seeking a way to improve his image in the Western media (Newsweek recently described his mug shot as "The face of evil").

But most important, the release of the hostages is the latest indication the Milosevic may be ready to talk peace. Jackson carried a letter from Milosevic to Washington outlining the Yugoslav position on how to stop the war, and Milosevic sent more signals in a UPI interview the day before the POWs were released.

He admitted for the first time that "bad things happened" in Kosovo at the hands of Serbian paramilitaries. "We have arrested those irregular self-appointed leaders." He admitted that individual houses were torched, "But not whole villages as we saw on TV in Vietnam."
Those comments were clearly exit strategy moves. He also outlined what a democratic Kosovo government would look like, and said that a United Nations peacekeeping force could have small weapons. While this is still far from NATO's demands, it certainly sounded like movement.

Belgraders who knew of Jackson's meetings with Serbian leaders were appalled by his lack of knowledge about the region, and many were downright shocked when news of the POWs' release came. The lobby of the Belgrade Hyatt Regency flooded with people in the minutes following the announcement. As the Jackson delegation wept and exchanged hugs, the hotel staff was visibly annoyed, and some even scowled and mumbled curses.

"It's really selfish of them to act this way when all those people just died in a bus bombing," said one Serbian journalist, referring to the death of 47 civilians earlier that day.

In one final press conference Jackson said, "This was a moral appeal that will have consequences." But the only immediate consequence was the escalation of the NATO bombing campaign.

While Jackson basked under camera lights, Belgrade is in darkness. In the two days since he left, NATO widened its targets to include electrical transmission units and life has changed dramatically for everyone. People are living in darkness, food rots in well-stocked freezers, stoves and ovens don't work. There is no news from television or radio, and another civilian bus was bombed, causing what the Associated Press called "heavy casualties."

"We took the risk to be killed by bombs," Jackson said dramatically in his closing press conference, at the safest and most luxurious hotel in Belgrade, where he stayed throughout his trip. But by the time the bombings had resumed, Jackson had already taken the three POWs, gotten on his bus and left.

By Alex Todorovic

Alex Todorovic is a Belgrade writer.

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