Comment: The war is over, but has anything changed?

Belgrade seems to have shrugged off the bombing as though little has happened

TOMORROW IS a big day for Serbia. Marko, the son of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, is opening Bambi Park, his sporting amusement centre for young people in the Milosevic home town of Pozarevac. Mr Milosevic Jnr, who also owns Madonna, the largest disco in the Balkans, said that Nato's 11-week bombing campaign had not disrupted construction work at Bambi Park. It was proof, he said, that "we care for younger generations."

On Tuesday, I dodged a police checkpoint that was set up to prevent foreign journalists and Serbian political activists from attending the first anti-Milosevic rally in the country since the end of the bombing. There were about 7,000 people present at the demonstration in the provincial town of Cacak. In Belgrade, life appears bizarrely normal. Apart from the ruined buildings hit by Nato which, in the centre, are mostly concentrated on one street, the city seems to have shrugged off the bombing as though little had happened. Shops are full, cafes are buzzing - and all young people want to do is to leave Serbia as soon as possible.

So, what are we to make of this picture? The first point is that there is little doubt that Serbia has become the black hole of Europe. It is utterly isolated and with seemingly little prospect of recovery. Or, at least that's what our Western leaders keep telling us. That is, that Serbia has no future while Slobodan Milosevic remains at the helm. But, could Mr Milosevic, the greatest political Houdini of modern times, slip his chains yet again? He might.

Watching that rally in Cacak, I was struck with an appalling sense of ennui, of having seen it all before. It is true of course that this time things are different - or are they? After all, Mr Milosevic has now presided over the loss of the Serbian "holy land" - Kosovo - and his people endured 78 days of bombing for nothing. No one believes the official line that Serbia has won the war in Kosovo. They do believe, however, that Serbs are the true victims of the war. After all, the official media here said nothing about the "cleansing" of Albanians during the bombing so most people believe that, first they were victimised by Nato, and now Serbs are being "cleansed" by Albanians while Nato troops do nothing.

Can the opposition make something of this? In the short run, probably not. People are tired and confused, but it is summer and life is not so hard. So, say the analysts, look to the autumn.

There are several possibilities. The rallies planned by the small and faction-ridden Alliance for Change, which organised last Tuesday's demonstrations, might take off into mass protests. Others may join them too. On Thursday, for example, the centre of Belgrade ground to a halt when 2,000 or so pensioners plus parasols took to the streets shouting "thieves" at government buildings and complaining that they could not live on their pensions.

If demonstrations do take off then Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the largest opposition party in Serbia, could throw his weight behind them. On the other hand, they might just fizzle out.

If that happens Mr Milosevic and his allies - the party led by his wife, the United Yugoslav Left and that of Serbian extreme nationalist Vojislav Seselj - might well strike some new deal and continue governing. At the moment, Mr Seselj is in a semi-detached position. His party resigned from government, but the president did not accept these resignations.

Another scenario involves Mr Draskovic who, politically speaking, has had a good war. He preserved his patriotic credentials but kept open his channels to the West. His party strategists are currently mulling over what is being called the "Kurt Waldheim" scenario. As its name suggests, it would follow the model of the isolation of Mr Waldheim as president of Austria following the revelations that he had lied about his Nazi past.

To get to this point, however, the opposition would have to be powerful enough to bargain from a position of strength. Essentially, Mr Draskovic in alliance with Milo Djukanovic, the anti-Milosevic president of Montenegro, would take over the Yugoslav government while Mr Milosevic would be left as president of Yugoslavia, ignored by all, until his term expired in 2002.

Neat though the "Waldheim" plan may be, no one should have any illusions that any such thing is a certainty. The political commentator Zarko Korac also believes that the end of the war marks the beginning of the end for Milosevic, but admits that he cannot yet see how he will go. But he argues that authoritarian leaders don't just fade away a la Waldheim. "I cannot see Milosevic as a pensioner walking his grandchildren in the park."

Meanwhile, Milisav Pajic, Yugoslavia's assistant deputy foreign minister, makes a trenchant case in defence of his president. He points out that his country still has leverage. "Calls for Milosevic to go are unrealistic," he says. Cacak's opposition rally was tiny and he adds that the Church, which has also called for Mr Milosevic to step down, has little influence.

So, in Yugoslav politics there is everything left to play for. And as Predrag Simic, one of Belgrade's sharpest political analysts, says: "We won't see the Ceausescu scenario here because, even now, we are not in such a bad shape as Romania was in 1989. But, neither will see a velvet revolution." And of course, quite possibly, we'll see no change whatsoever.

The author's `The Serbs: History, Myth & the Destruction of Yugoslavia' is published by Yale University Press

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