Jubilant Serbs' leader shuns limelight as legend glows brighter

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AS THEY headed home from the chateau of Rambouillet last week, the Serbian delegation at the peace talks on Kosovo did not conceal their jubilation.

Why should they, when Nato air strikes had been averted, the West's threats to punish Serbia had dissipated into the February mist and the world was back in a familiar state of disarray over what to do with the bad boy of the Balkans? If ever there a moment for Serbia's leader for the past 12 years to appear on the balcony in Belgrade, Evita style, and receive the applause of a grateful nation, it was now.

Instead Slobodan Milosevic said... nothing. There was no appearance, merely a printed statement, saying: "We won't give up Kosovo, even if they bomb us." On the tarmac at Belgrade airport it was left to the Yugoslav President's underling, Milan Milutinovic, President of Serbia, to crow in front of the TV cameras.

To Serbs, their ruler's invisibility came as no surprise. "The last time he appeared in public was October last year," said Katarina, a young mother in Belgrade. "There was a small earthquake. Milosevic appeared and told people they were lucky to have the chance to build new houses."

Like a Balkan Stalin, Mr Milosevic relishes the substance of power but shrugs at the symbols and panoply of office. While his counterpart in Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, wows the crowds with his gold braid, medals and fancy uniforms, Mr Milosevic remains the same secretive, grey-suited apparatchik he always was. Look how he juggles his job title all the time; once president of the Serbian League of Communists, then president of Serbia, now president of Yugoslavia. What next?

No doubt it amused him to watch from afar as Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and his US counterpart, Madeleine Albright, tried to "negotiate" Kosovo's future with "President" Milutinovic in France, as if the latter's status were anything other than a bauble in his master's pudgy hand.

Mr Milosevic has always preferred the shadows - shunning the limelight even when when Serbia was at the epicentre of world attention. Night after night in the Bosnian war of 1992-95, the world glimpsed him on the TV news, burly frame parked on the same fake Louis Quinze sofa, nodding sagely to whichever US, British or Russian leader was in Belgrade struggling to get his attention.

Those sofa shots are as much as most people have ever seen of the Balkans' master tactician, that or a glimpse of a limousine rocketing down a Serbian motorway flanked by outriders, sirens wailing. Even when he first took power in Belgrade in 1987 he seemed to detest appearing in public.

The vast and turbulent Serb nationalist rallies that began to tear apart Yugoslavia, as it then was, were all about Mr Milosevic and were managed by him, but they very rarely featured the man himself. When he did have to face the masses, as he did on the night in February 1989, when he first sent the tanks into Kosovo, he looked puffy, ill and covered in sweat.

Even when he went to war with Croatia in 1991 to support the local Serbs, Mr Milosevic left his Belgrade bunker to visit his "liberated" territories precisely once, paying a lightning visit to the town of Glina in 1991 to make the Croatian Serbs sign a peace deal with the UN. Not even the business of general elections winkles him out: in the 1990 vote for the Serbian presidency he appeared in public twice.

There are sound historical reasons for his seeming obsession with personal security. Many Serbian rulers have been despatched to an early grave. Karadjordje Petrovic liberated the Serbs from the Turks in 1804. only for his comrades to betray him in 1817, cut off his head and send it on a platter to Istanbul. In 1903, King Milan was slashed to death in the palace in Belgrade, while his successor but one, King Alexandar, was shot dead in 1934.

Mr Milosevic's secretiveness may have nothing to to do with fear of the assassin's dagger. "It's just a good tactic," said Sasha, a Belgrade journalist, "though I don't like it. He's just like the old communists." But her journalist friend Goran thinks the disappearing act has paid dividends. "He has turned himself into a legend. As a result, when he does appear, people go berserk."