War in Europe: Serbia's leader lingers on in silence

the prospect of real peace in the Balkans. But now they've got to make it work; THE FUTURE FOR MILOSEVIC
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Not once during Nato's onslaught on Serbia did Slobodan Milosevic appear in public. He did not walk in the streets of Belgrade. He visited no hospitals and addressed no troops. He was silent. And now, in the twilight zone between war and economic disaster, he remains silent.

He had prepared for the worst. According to those who claim to know his financial arrangements, the Milosevic family fortune was transferred out of Yugoslavia long before Nato commenced its bombardment, moved via Cyprus and Lebanon to an account in the Shanghai free zone with the help of the President's personal banker, Borka Vucic, the head of the Yugoslav bankers association.

And his decision to accept Nato's "peace" terms was made by 28 May, a week before the end of the war. That was the day Viktor Chernomyrdin arrived in Belgrade for 10 hours of talks with Mr Milosevic and left - though his words were largely ignored at the time - "very pleased" with the results. The President had sent Mirko Mirjanovic, the Serbian Prime Minister, to meet Mr Chernomyrdin at Surcin airport and, in the car en route to the Beli Dvor palace, the former Russian prime minister asked Mr Mirjanovic why the Serbs were being "stubborn". The Prime Minister understood the question, but said: "It's the boss who is taking the decisions."

When Mr Chernomyrdin mentioned the exchange to Mr Milosevic, the President was incensed and refused Mr Mirjanovic permission to return to the airport with the Russian envoy. But "the boss" had already made his decision to accept Nato's demands - provided Nato troops would not be allowed to travel outside Kosovo. It was just one day after UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague had published its indictment against the Serbian leader.

And he had, according to those who know him, suffered another shock: a minor stroke three weeks ago that affected his left hand. Indeed, videotape of the Chernomyrdin-Milosevic meeting on 28 May shows the President greeting his visitor with a right handshake rather than his usual two-hand grip. His left arm hung by his side.

He already knew, of course, that his country was being pulverised into the 19th century. An economic study just finished in Belgrade showed that by 21 May, annual per capita income in Serbia had fallen from $1,000 (pounds 640) to $450 - about equal to the wealth of Burkina Faso. Did Mr Milosevic also fear that a Nato ground offensive might bring Western troops all the way to Belgrade?

An opposition editor in Belgrade is convinced that it was the indictment from Louise Arbour, the UN war crime prosecutor, that persuaded Mr Milosevic to end the war. "He decided he had no other choice. Either he would remain the boss in Serbia and lose Kosovo, or there would be a ground intervention and troops in Belgrade and he would be sent for trial in The Hague," he said. "He had 24 hours to think it over. He knew Nato was approaching the moment of decision on a ground offensive, and that meant the occupation of the whole country and the end for him. He did what he always does: he took the worst decision in the worst conditions."

But Nato never had the courage to invade Kosovo, let alone the rest of Yugoslavia. Besides, President Milosevic has been threatened with an indictment before - and his colleagues in Bosnia, General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, have escaped Nato's arrest teams for more than two years in a land controlled by American, British and French troops. And when Martti Ahtisaari arrived on 2 June along with Mr Chernomyrdin, Mr Milosevic put on a show of statesmanship for the cameras. There were no lounge chairs and sofas; the delegations were seen facing each other across a conference table with Mr Milosevic flanked by two of the other Serb leaders indicted by Ms Arbour: the army chief of staff, General Dragoljub Ojdanic, and the Serb President, Milan Milutinovic.

President Milosevic received his assurance that Nato troops would be confined to Kosovo - and that there would be no mention of a "will of the people" mechanism to change the status of Kosovo after three years (a key clause in the original Paris peace agreement signed by the Kosovo Albanians). Nato could enter part of Serbia, but Serbia's claim to Kosovo remained unchallenged. But would this be enough for Mr Milosevic to claim he had saved his nation from defeat?

Dragan Veselina, president of the Vojvodina Coalition in the Serbian parliament and a professor of political economics, believes there is no future for Serbia as long as Slobodan Milosevic remains in power. "There will be no peace in Serbia until Milosevic and his government have gone," he says. "I don't think Serbia will qualify for economic aid as long as Milosevic is here. Milosevic and his government must go. But they will not go willingly. Our population should be released from fear, they should feel free and speak freely and organise freely."

But the idea that Yugoslav democrats will rise up to throw Mr Milosevic from power may well be vain. Many Serbs, including Mr Veselina, fear that right-wing nationalists such as Vojislav Seselj, the deputy prime minister of Serbia, leader of the Serbian Radical Party and the notorious White Eagles militia, could take power, leaving Serbia in the hands of an openly fascist government rather than the crypto-socialist dictatorship of Milosevic.

Would the Russians step in then to offer Mr Milosevic sanctuary? A Russian exile for Milosevic, while it would be anathema to Nato countries, might be a price worth paying for Moscow's co-operation in Kosovo and the willing participation of Russian troops in Yugoslavia under a unified command. And from Russia, of course, President Milosevic could even travel on to China, and to the city of Shanghai.

Comments