Spin doctor turns war into peace

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LAW AND ORDER. That's what it was about. Peace, dialogue, human rights. Listening toAlexandar Vucic yesterday, with his baby face, thick lips and quick smile, you had to shake yourself to remember whom you were listening to.

Mr Vucic was against "terrorism", he was against violence. All he wanted was negotiation, talks, good will, financial assistance for returning Albanian refugees. All he wanted was peace.

Mr Vucic, it should be said - despite his smart blue blazer, with its shiny buttons - was not long ago the spokesman for Vojislav Seselj, among the cruellest of Serbia's barbarians in Bosnia, leader of the infamous White Eagles Militia which was to Bosnian Muslims what Attila the Hun was to Western Europe. Rape, murder, mass execution and a lot of pillage. Those were the activities we once associated with Seselj's lads.

But yesterday there was the eloquent Mr Vucic, now Minister of Information in the Serbian government and number three in Mr Seselj's Serbian Radical Party, lecturing us on civic duty, constitutional rights, patriotism and non-violence.

Of course, there are those who now claim Attila wasn't such a bad guy. So, here we were being welcomed by Mr Seselj's right-hand man in a room decorated with brass candelabras and post-modernist art, the red, white and blue flags of Serbia and Federal Yugoslavia giving his words the necessary gravitas.

Perhaps the Balkans has this effect on everyone, an amnesia in which evil turns into innocence, while oppressed minorities become "terrorist" bands. Mr Vucic should know. He had just been touring Kosovo, reassuring Serbs there that the government would protect them - indeed that it would look after every citizen "regardless of their religion", in other words, Muslims.

Now he needed to tell us what Serbia wanted. Yes, it was dialogue - and as soon as possible - with the Albanian minority. Yes, "minority".

Mr Vucic regards Kosovo as just part of Serbia, a province whose 90 per cent Albanian majority are a mere 16 per cent minority in the whole of Serbia. And it was only those pesky Albanian "terrorists" - as usual, we were treated to the word "terrorists" more than 50 times in less than an hour - who did not want to participate in the talks that would solve the "problems" of Kosovo.

Needless to say, there was no mention of Serbia's suppression of Albanian autonomy in Kosovo nine years ago.

"There is nothing more important than human rights," Mr Vucic informed us. "It is important to realise that the representatives of the Serbian government and the police forces are responsible for keeping peace and order. And the government of the Republic of Serbia is ready to talk with representatives of the Albanian national side."

But hadn't the burnings and killings of the past months taken things a little too far for that? Was Serbia aware, I asked politely, that large areas of Kosovo were under the control of armed Albanian separatists?

"I'm pleased someone asked this question," Mr Vucic replied with a horrifying smile. "That is good justification for the presence of Serbian government forces on this territory."

No, he had not heard of Serbian police desertions. And there was no reason to use comparisons with Bosnia and - here we held our breath - with "the vocabulary of the situation in Srebrenica".

Mr Vucic said the name without emotion in the midst of this creamy propaganda. It was like finding a splinter of glass in a piece of chocolate.

Srebrenica - abandoned by its US protectors in 1995, its thousands of Bosnian Muslim men slaughtered by Serb gunmen - was a reminder of just what the White Eagles and their friends were capable.

Then there was the question of those Serb mothers who had arrived in Pristina to campaign for the withdrawal of their soldier and policemen sons from Kosovo. It was Christiane Amanpour of CNN who dared to ask this question.

"Every mother is very much worried about her children," Mr Vucic assured her. So why, asked Ms Amanpour, had Serb mothers been doused by police water cannons for their pains? "Don't worry about Serb mothers - these are our mothers and our children," she was told. "We will take care of them."

He then suggested that Ms Amanpour had not told the truth in a report she made from the Bosnian Serb capital of Pale in 1993. Of course, being accused of lying by the Serb Radical Party is akin to receiving a coveted press award for integrity, but this was, as they say, a bit rich.

However, on he went. Foreign journalists mimicked the words of their government but the Serbs respected freedom of the Press.

A real pro, this Mr Vuvic - and you can be sure to be hearing much more from him in the coming days.