Liberation of Kosovo: Serbia - Milosevic the unlikely survivor confounds predictions again

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The Independent Online
TO CALL Slobodan Milosevic a survivor does not even begin to do him justice. He has been written off repeatedly since the earliest days and on each occasion has emerged victorious and apparently unscathed.

Two years ago in Belgrade, I was startled when Serb friends confidently predicted that Mr Milosevic would one day give Kosovo away as a ploy to hold on to power. It seemed impossible at the time. How could he give away Kosovo, the alleged Serb heartland, and still survive? It seemed a contradiction in terms. But Mr Milosevic survives on just such contradictions.

One supposed reason why he launched a war against Croatia in 1991 was to protect Serbs who lived in Croatia. The fate of the embattled Serbs was a key theme, used to justify Serb aggression at that time. But four years later, when hundreds of thousands of Serbs were "ethnically cleansed" by the Croats, Serb television ignored the event. It boasted instead of Mr Milosevic's statesman-like achievement of peace in the region.

Now we are seeing an almost identical policy. Until recently, the loss of Kosovo seemed unthinkable; now, Serbs are departing daily. For the moment, however, the Serb media still sell the Yugoslav President as a bringer of peace. Bizarrely, it appears to be working.

One measure of its success is Mr Milosevic's readiness to show his face in public in recent days. During the headiest days of his rise to power in the late Eighties, Mr Milosevic addressed adoring rallies who loved his devotion to the cause of Serbs in Kosovo. Later, he almost disappeared from view.

Now, with the Serb cause effectively destroyed, Mr Milosevic feels able to tour the country once more. The crowds who turn out in support may have been organised by local party officials, but the fact that he dares show his face in public is a sign that things are better for him now than they have been for many years.

As before, Mr Milosevic can rely on his enemies to tear each other to pieces. Vuk Draskovic, a leader of the huge pro-democracy demonstrations in 1996, later became deputy prime minister and quarrelled bitterly with other opposition leaders. Vojislav Seselj, leader of the extreme-right Radical Party, which has just walked out of the government, also helps to keep the anti-Milosevic opposition divided.

The Serb Orthodox Church called this week for Mr Milosevic's resignation "in the interest of the people and their salvation". The President seems unlikely to obey, and there will not be any demonstrations big enough to force him out. For the moment, then, unbelievable though it seems, Mr Milosevic's position remains almost assured. Western officials emphasise that he is looking peaky and say he may have suffered a stroke. That may be true, but it was also true of the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin.

Mr Milosevic is now officially a war criminal. This will limits his foreign holidays and state visits, but it will have few other practical effects.

However, in the longer term his situation is likely to become untenable. Economic isolation and devastation will hurt, and the anti-Nato solidarity will be replaced by resentment of the leadership.

Mr Milosevic has ways of coping with that. If things get really difficult, he can always try to launch another war, for example in Montenegro - a trick that he used to good effect before . It was true 10 years ago, and remains true today: Milosevic and peace in the Balkans are an incompatible mix.