Milosevic may be offered exile and immunity deal

Russia sends senior envoys amid further signs that the Belgrade regime is ready to collapse following last week's election defeat
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The Independent Online

The diplomatic noose closed further on Slobodan Milosevic yesterday as the Russian President Vladimir Putin sent two senior envoys to Belgrade and acknowledged for the first time that the Yugoslav leader had lost the election.

The diplomatic noose closed further on Slobodan Milosevic yesterday as the Russian President Vladimir Putin sent two senior envoys to Belgrade and acknowledged for the first time that the Yugoslav leader had lost the election.

Western leaders now hope that Moscow can play a key role in helping to dislodge the apparently immovable Yugoslav president, possibly by offering him a safe haven, immune from prosecution for war crimes.

The US and its allies would reportedly like Russia to put forward a proposal to Mr Milosevic under which he would go into exile - probably in Russia - and avoid prosecution as a war criminal if he hands over power without further ado to Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition challenger who claims to have won the elections.

London and Washington are still, officially at least, determined that Mr Milosevic should be brought to justice as a war criminal. Increasingly, however, it seems that the West may be persuaded that letting him slip discreetly out of the country may be the more sensible option for Serbia

As opposition rallies across Serbia continued yesterday in advance of a general strike today that is supposed to bring the country to a five-day standstill, the German government announced Mr Putin had agreed a "common position" with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in a telephone call on Saturday. "They agreed that, in the election victory of Vojislav Kostunica, the will of the Serbian people for a democratic change had been clearly expressed," a German spokesman said.

There was no comment from the Kremlin on the statement but if true, it implies that Mr Putin now accepts that Mr Kostunica won the election outright on the first ballot. This would be a surprising change of stance - and a further damaging blow to Mr Milosevic - since Russia had previously refused to take a stand on the election result and criticised the West for doing so.

Vladimir Chizov, Russia's special envoy to the Balkans, and Alexander Tolkach, a senior official, arrived in Belgrade for talks yesterday. Earlier, Mr Putin had offered to send Igor Ivanov, his Foreign Minister, to the Serbian capital, but US officials said Mr Milosevic had rejected the idea.

In a measure of the sustained pressure being brought to bear on Russia by Western leaders, President Clinton telephoned the Russian leader on Saturday and told him that the will of the Serbian people should be respected.

Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said that Mr Ivanov should go to Belgrade if he was carrying the message to Mr Milosevic that he must leave power.

A British diplomat stressed the potentially pivotal role of Russia: "Remember that we worked closely with the Russians at the end of Kosovo. The pincer movement got Milosevic to back down. We have a closer relationship with the Kremlin than we did then - and we're hoping that the Russians might be able to broker a way out."

Mr Putin, ever eager to show that Russia still counts on the world stage, is keen to play a role in the crisis over the future of Mr Milosevic. But he will probably try to avoid giving the impression he is prepared to sell out an old ally immediately at the behest of the West.

President Milosevic's refusal at the weekend to let the Russian Foreign Minister come to Belgrade suggests that he is still determined to batten down the hatches.

In Belgrade and all over Serbia, however, the signs were multiplying that former Milosevic loyalists are ready to scurry from the sinking ship.

One suggestion was that Rade Markovic, head of Mr Milosevic's state security, had resigned or been sacked, or both. The rumours, though rarely confirmable, reflect the perception in Belgrade that Mr Milosevic's powerbase is ready to collapse.

There were further signs of cracks in the regime when journalists from the pro-government newspaper Vecernje Novosti and from Radio Belgrade, who were previously obedient to the regime, publicly demanded a change to provide "ethical and professional" coverage.

Jiri Dienstbier, UN special rapporteur on human rights, met opposition leaders and government officials in Belgrade. Mr Dienstbier, who played a key role in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, told The Independent: "I know a lot of people in the government structures. They're reasonable people who would prefer change. There are very clever people who feel that times are changing. The sooner you catch the main train, the better."