Led by a crazed poker player

Like every Serb, Milosevic has an acute sense of history. This is his 1914 gambit
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The Independent Culture
SOME SERBS compare Slobodan Milosevic to a crazed poker player. The more he loses the harder he plays - always hoping that somehow he is going to recoup his losses. Of course he never does, and in this grotesque game it is always others who must pay his gambling debts. Their lives for his debts.

As Nato ratchets up the pressure Milosevic is playing fast and loose. By setting Russia at odds with the West he is daring both sides to deal each other out - leaving him the victor.

In 1987, as he rose to power, Milosevic told the Serbs of Kosovo that it was not the Serb way to retreat, "to demobilise when they should fight". They, like millions of others, succumbed to his siren song. Ever since, the Serbs have been fighting, and, thanks to him, losing.

The Milosevic factor is easy to understand. The man is interested in power and nothing else. As he has hectored, fought, ducked and weaved over the last 20 years, his whole career, his every move, has either been to gain power, to consolidate it or to keep it.

Until 1987 Milosevic mouthed the platitudes of Yugoslav "Brotherhood and Unity" - after that he understood that the language of nationalism was his passport to supreme power.

At first Milosevic thought he could take control of the whole of the old Yugoslavia. Instead he destroyed it. With that project doomed, he tried to create a Greater Serbia encompassing parts of Croatia and Bosnia. When the Croats were ready for the fight back and Croatia's Serbs were driven out, he said nothing.

When Nato bombs finally fell on the Bosnian Serbs in the summer of 1995, Milosevic was happy to abandon them and seal their fate at the Dayton talks. He called their leaders "idiots", as if, all along, they had not been following his orders. The Serbs he sent out to save from Bosnia;s "Jihad Warriors" now eke out a living in their impoverished statelet.

Serbia itself is ruined ,and a pariah state; however, Milosevic is still in power.

Part of the problem that Milosevic has, is that not only does he have no interest in the fate of his people, but the actions of his subordinates, often drunk on the power he grants them, usually destroy any advantage he may have gained.

Massacres, be they in Bosnia, or now in Kosovo, far from advancing any perceived Serbian interest simply undermine them.

Two weeks ago, if Serb forces had gone back to barracks, leaving a few police to keep up a low-profile struggle against the remaining guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the province would have dropped off the news agenda and there would be not be any talk of air strikes today.

So, now, with his back against the wall, Milosevic must try to talk his way out of the corner in which he finds himself. His most powerful card is the Russian one. In this way he is playing chicken with the world. He is daring the West to bomb him, with the Russians explicitly saying that they must not. Like every other Serb, Milosevic has an acute sense of history.

This, then, is his 1914 gambit. He is gambling here that everyone remembers what happened when Austria-Hungary began a war simply to deliver a short, sharp, shock to irritating little Serbia. Of course, Serbia will not be a cause of world war today, but Milosevic has rightly calculated that if Nato bombs - and so publicly humiliates Russia - no one knows what sort of awful political consequences could follow. In fact there might be none, but, since no one knows, bombing is, unlike the situation in 1995, a leap into the unknown.

Milosevic's second trump card is his Bosnian ace. When American troops arrived in Bosnia after the Dayton peace deal of November 1995, it is believed some discreet deal was struck between his Serbian secret police and the Americans.

Its exact nature is unknown. However, it may well have been an understanding that no senior Bosnian Serb, or paramilitary leader, would go to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague who would be senior enough to give credible evidence that Milosevic had been giving the orders all the time.

In exchange his police and intelligence network was put to the service of securing US and Nato troop security. In his recent memoir, To End a War, Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat and architect of the Dayton deal, wrote that the Western mistake since the beginning of the Yugoslav wars had been "to treat the Serbs as rational people with whom one could argue, negotiate, compromise, and agree. In fact, they respected only force or an unambiguous and a credible threat to use it."

Today the threat to use force could hardly be more unambiguous. Holbrooke is also a formidable character who, in another life, could have carved himself a successful career as ruthless Mafia don. It is more than likely, then, that, in his meetings with Milosevic over the last 48 hours, he has been banging the table, and using stronger language than could ever be reprinted in a newspaper such as this.

There seems little doubt that Holbrooke told Milosevic to come to his senses , or Nato would blast his air defence systems to smithereens, "and that would be just for starters". Indeed, his most memorable phrase in his memoir is when he appeals to Nato's top brass in 1995: "Give us bombs for peace".

Yet, this time, or at least thus far, Holbrooke has been humiliated. He left Monday's meeting with Milosevic empty handed. He was then taunted by Milosevic's denunciations of Nato's "criminal threats".

Milosevic must have been playing his Russian and Bosnian cards, and perhaps one or two more, ones that may rake over past US dealings with him, that would be deeply embarrassing if they ever leaked out. And yet, Milosevic will still lose, or at least his people will.

Holbrooke was wrong when he argued that the Serbs were irrational. Most Serbs are as rational as anyone else in Europe. What they do have, though, is an irrational leader, and no credible opposition.

In the long run few educated Serbs doubt that one day Kosovo will be independent.

The only question then is how long the transitional phase will be, and of what kind. With Western backing Milosevic could have struck a compromise deal with the Kosovo Albanians years ago, one that restored their autonomy and, for example, promised to reopen the issue in, say, three years' time, or even a decade.

In the end, then, that is probably the deal that will yet be struck, but, as he is acting irrationally - in a deranged manner, even - it may still take bombs to move Milosevic to a position that he could negotiate today. And of course, with an eye to the skies, Kosovo's Albanians are not going to help him.

Milosevic's reputation is so bad now that if they refuse to talk, he will be blamed. Milosevic knows this too, but, being a tactical genius, he may even turn the tables and extract gains from bombs. If they are followed up by Nato ground troops, he can argue that he had no choice but to agree to their peacekeeping role.

He will then assert, correctly, that a Nato presence is to Serbia's advantage, since it will mean that the Kosovo Liberation Army cannot regroup to fight another day, and so Nato is doing Serbia's job for it - and keeping Kosovo within Serbia, or at least the rump of Yugoslavia.

In their idle moments Serbia's intellectuals like to debate whether Milosevic's downfall will resemble that of Mr Gorbachev or the Ceausescus. Recently Sonja Biserko, the brave lady who runs Serbia's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights told me that, sooner or later, her country had to face "its historical debacle".

Whether those bombs come or not, my gut feeling is that Serbia is not yet facing that history. Milosevic still has a good many rounds of poker left to play.

Tim Judah is the author of `The Serbs: History, Myth & the Destruction of Yugoslavia', published by Yale in paperback last month, price pounds 9.95