Balkans tyrant turns into architect of peace: Serbia's leader is winning international acceptance, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SLOBODAN MILOSEVIC, once branded a tyrant, a war criminal and the fundamental cause of former Yugoslavia's troubles, is in the unaccustomed position this week of being feted as a man of peace. Politicians from Lord Owen, the international mediator, to Andrei Kozyrev, Russia's Foreign Minister, are heaping praise on the Serbian President for his supposed valuable contribution to the 'peace process' in Bosnia.

It is an extraordinary turn-about for a man until recently deemed an international pariah, the Saddam Hussein of the Balkans. But it is possible that the 53-year-old son of an Orthodox Serbian clergyman has again fooled everyone, Serbs and non-Serbs alike.

Mr Milosevic is receiving international applause for his decisions to support the Western-Russian peace plan for Bosnia and to sever relations with the Bosnian Serb leadership on account of their rejection of the plan. He is letting an international team monitor the Serbian-Bosnian border.

In return, the United Nations Security Council is expected to lift certain sanctions on Serbia, notably the ban on international commercial flights in and out of the country. More sanctions will be lifted if the Bosnian Serbs are forced to accept the peace plan, which aims to split Bosnia roughly in half between the Bosnian Serbs and a Muslim-Croat federation.

In this way, Mr Milosevic has transformed himself from a leader who was identified as the chief villain of the Yugoslav drama into a man who is dictating the script for peace. There seems no chance that he will be put on trial for alleged war crimes, as the US State Department once wanted.

Mr Milosevic has even greater reason to be happy. After three years and three months of war in former Yugoslavia, Serbian forces of various stripes are in control of 30 per cent of Croatia and are being awarded 49 per cent of Bosnia. A Greater Serbian state, the dream of nationalists since the early 19th century, is gradually taking shape, even if it is not quite as large as some Serbs may wish.

The reversal of Mr Milosevic's fortunes is a tribute to his opportunism and skill at outmanoeuvring his opponents. When he broke with the Bosnian Serb leaders, he remarked: 'Serbs in the Bosnian Serb Republic are being put into a position in which the lives of their dearest sons, who are fighting heroically, are paid for by the insane political ambitions and greed of their leadership.'

Yet Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, is only the latest of Mr Milosevic's targets. Since his ascent to power in 1986, the list of eliminated rivals includes Ivan Stambolic, the former Serbian president; Dobrica Cosic, the former Yugoslav president; Milan Panic, the former Yugoslav prime minister; Vojislav Seselj, the radical Serbian nationalist; and dozens of military officers.

A former banker and Communist Party leader whose father, mother and uncle each committed suicide, Mr Milosevic seems driven by no ideology or political programme other than a desire to consolidate his personal power. His autocratic rule appeals to many Serbs, especially in politically backward rural areas, who respect strong leadership.

In Belgrade, a relatively sophisticated city, he is less popular. According to a poll published in the newspaper Borba on 24 August, 51 per cent of Belgraders had a positive opinion of him and 42 per cent a negative one. Discontent with his rule has occasionally boiled over in Belgrade, as in March 1991, when he used troops to crush student-led riots.

(Photograph omitted)