Rumors of peace

Milosevic may soon declare victory -- and make the West pay billions to rebuild Serbia.

Published May 19, 1999 8:30AM (EDT)

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic seems to be preparing to give way to
international demands on Kosovo in order to bring an end to the NATO
bombing, Belgrade watchers believe. A flurry of statements by political
figures loyal to Milosevic just in the past few days appears to be designed
to prepare the Serbian public for the possibility of a climb-down by
Belgrade that would be spun as a victory against NATO.

"Practically, we've already beaten NATO. The fact that it has not beaten us
in three days or three weeks means that it has suffered defeat," said
Vojislav Seselj, the most hard-line figure in the Serbian government and
Milosevic's deputy prime minister, in an interview with Belgrade's Blic
newspaper Tuesday. NATO "won't beat us in three months, nor three years,
nor 300 years for that matter. This means [NATO] has met with
defeat, because anything short of its absolute triumph means its defeat. If
we manage to defend our country, it will have been total victory for us."

Also on Tuesday, Yugoslav foreign ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic told a
Belgrade press conference "We are open for a dialogue on the principles" of
the so-called G-8 plan, which was proposed almost two weeks ago by the
world's leading powers, including, significantly, Russia. The G-8 plan
calls for a withdrawal of Serbian police and paramilitary forces from
Kosovo, the return of Kosovo Albanian deportees to the province, the
deployment of an armed international force to provide protection in Kosovo
and political autonomy for the Kosovo Albanians. "We need some
clarification of some of those principles," he added.

Ljubisa Ristic, leader of the political party allied with Milosevic's wife,
Mira Markovic (the Yugoslav United Left, JUL), told the Belgrade newspaper
Blic that Serbia is prepared to accept the G-8 principles, but that those
principles needed to be "worked out" at the United Nations.

The whiff of a possible deal comes amid reports that Serbian troops are
building up on Kosovo's borders in preparation for what Belgrade fears
could be a NATO invasion. Meanwhile, in remarks in Washington Tuesday,
President Clinton reiterated that NATO "will not take any option off the
table," including ground troops, while emphasizing his conviction that NATO
should "stay with the strategy we have" of airstrikes backed by diplomacy.

But while the West publicly debates deploying ground troops to Kosovo, the
reluctance to do so among several NATO governments, including the United States and
Germany, is well known. Meanwhile, Milosevic may have other reasons for
looking for a way out now. There have been reports of stepped-up desertions
by Serbian soldiers, and parents of Serbian army conscripts staged an
anti-war protest Tuesday in Krusevac. Local Serbian media reports say
anti-Milosevic, pro-democracy protests have been held in several Serbian
towns. Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin's trip to Belgrade Wednesday to
discuss possible peace terms could provide Milosevic with the opening he
needs to move toward negotiations on the G-8 proposal.

Milosevic has made other conciliatory gestures of late. On Monday, he
permitted representatives of the United Nations to come to Belgrade to
explore the possibility of providing humanitarian assistance to Kosovo and
Yugoslavia, for the first time since NATO airstrikes began on March 24.
Some Kosovo Albanians forcibly deported from their homes by Serbian forces
in the past two weeks have arrived in Macedonia and Albania showing the
early stages of starvation. Some of these recent deportees say their access
to dwindling food supplies in the province has been increasingly limited.

"Milosevic is trying to sell the country on negotiations. It now seems he's
basically accepted the G-8 plan," said Bratislav Grubacic, a Belgrade
political analyst and editor of VIP news, in a telephone interview
Wednesday. But Grubacic warns that the G-8 principles as stated are vague
and leave Milosevic plenty of negotiating space. "The G-8 plan is very weak.
Milosevic can negotiate within the framework on many issues. He can try to
make it relatively acceptable to Serbia."

In particular, Grubacic says, Milosevic will try to make sure that it is
not NATO-led troops that come into Kosovo but United Nations troops, perhaps defanged
of Americans and Brits. He will also insist that the territorial integrity
of Serbia be preserved, that some Serbian troops be allowed to remain in
Kosovo, and that the international community provide funds to reconstruct
Serbia after the bombing.

Serbian hard-liner Vojislav Seselj, in his Tuesday interview with the Belgrade
paper Blic, laid out strikingly similar terms: "There won't be any
concessions with regard to our state sovereignty and territorial integrity.
No member of our public is opposed to the option of giving maximum autonomy
to the Albanian national minority. But any detachment (of Kosovo) from
Serbia is out of the question. Second, we're prepared to accept a U.N.
observer [or] verifying mission ... But it must be a civilian mission. Any peaceful
solution without a clause providing for total compensation for the damage
suffered by Yugoslavia in this war is unthinkable. We'll certainly succeed
in getting part of the damages."

Seselj then noted that Milosevic would be unlikely to simply agree to the
terms he rejected in Rambouillet, France -- before three months of NATO airstrikes devastated much of the Serbian infrastructure. And he asked a
rhetorical question that NATO member countries and Kosovar Albanian
deportees could just as easily be asking themselves: "Why did we go to war
and suffer this enormous damage? To accept something we'd rejected before
the outbreak of war? That is out of the question."

But in fact, by pulling into negotiations a NATO reluctant to deploy ground
troops to Kosovo without a peace agreement, a NATO losing its confidence
that it can achieve victory from the air alone, a NATO preoccupied with
providing life support for almost a million Kosovar refugees, Milosevic may
in fact get more for Serbia than he would have if he had signed the
Rambouillet peace agreement back in March. In addition, he has forced NATO
and Russia to identify the "basic minimum" upon which both could agree --
not a NATO force, but merely an "international" force. And the legal status of Kosovo itself has not been seriously questioned. The international community is still united behind the idea of autonomy, but not independence, for Kosovo.

Concretely, that means Milosevic may get better terms than were on
the table at Rambouillet: U.N. troops, instead of an international force
led by NATO, which is widely considered more intimidating; and a promise by
international powers to pay billions to rebuild Serbia --
the country NATO has just spent billions of dollars destroying.

And political analyst Bratislav Grubacic says Milosevic has gotten himself
and Serbian nationalists something more: a Kosovo that will never have as many
Albanians as it did before the war.

"Serbian authorities do not expect that most of the Kosovo Albanians will
ever come back," Grubacic says. "Those who do not have Serbian identity
papers anymore won't come back. Those who sympathized with the Kosovo
Liberation Army probably won't come back. Authorities and analysts believe
that not more than half of the Kosovo Albanians will return." And no one
yet knows how many ethnic Albanians have been killed by Serbian forces
during the war.

After pausing on his mobile phone in Belgrade, Grubacic adds: "Milosevic has
succeeded in creating a new ethnic balance in Serbia."

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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