Writing on the wall for Belgrade: The mood is growing darker in Slobodan Milosevic's 'capital without a nation', writes Robert Fisk

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The Independent Online
THE GRAFFITI were painted in black on the shabby Belgrade wall. 'The Ustasha flat of Bogdan Bogdanovic,' they announced. 'Second floor - follow the arrow.' So we followed the arrow. It ran around the hallway and up the stairs, big black daggers of paint that careered across the window- panes on the landing and ended triumphantly an inch from the doorbell. And when we rang, a gentle, elderly lady opened the door with a big smile.

Professor Bogdanovic was sitting behind his wife, a cane in his hand, balding, his 70-year-old eyes full of fire, much-purged but scarcely a Croatian war criminal. 'The first time they put that on the stairs, my wife got a tin of paint-cleaner and washed it off,' he said. 'The second time, we decided to leave it there.'

Prof Bogdanovic knows why he is hated. It was he who wrote an open letter denouncing the notorious eighth session of the Serbian League of Communists in 1987, the meeting which allowed Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, to destroy the last Serbian elements of pan-Yugoslavia. Architect, ex-mayor of Belgrade, son of one of the city's oldest families, it was a heresy never to be forgiven.

Then, on Croatian television last year, Prof Bogdanovic dared to suggest, light-heartedly, that the arrival of General Norman Schwarzkopf might prevent further bloodshed in the old Yugoslavia. In print, however, the remark read like a call for foreign intervention. It was this which provoked the first graffiti.

When he later gave an interview to the brave little Belgrade radio station 'B92', denouncing the Serbian 'criminals' responsible for 'ethnic cleansing', two bulky figures stopped Prof Bogdanovic in a darkened street. The old man recalls the encounter like a stage play, the larger of the two thugs towering over him:

Big man: 'Are you a Serb?'

Bogdanovic: 'Yes I am a Serb.'

Big man: 'How can I know that?'

Bogdanovic: 'Can't you see I'm brave enough to be a Serb and look you in the eye?'

Big man: 'You are either brave or crazy.'

Bogdanovic: 'I'm definitely brave because I know what I'm doing.'

Big man: 'What are you doing?'

Bogdanovic: 'I am trying to spare a couple of Serbian lives.'

Big man: 'Whose lives?'

Bogdanovic: 'Yours - because they're going to send you to fight in Slovenia where you'll be killed. I'm too old to fight.'

The two men left Mr Bogdanovic alone. But next day, the graffiti was back on the wall. There were threatening letters and telephone calls. Belgrade is a dangerous place now for those who publicly oppose the Serbian President - perhaps even for Milan Panic, the federal Prime Minister whom Mr Milosevic helped to create, a soft-shoe turned tough, the only hope for those who oppose the corrosive nationalism that has started three wars in two years.

'In every crime novel, the principal criminal makes a mistake,' Prof Bogdanovic says. 'The crucial mistake of Mr Milosevic was that he chose Mr Panic.'

Yugoslavia's civil war has not yet reached the depths at which assassination turns into a viable political option but this stage may not now be far away. Those who regard Mr Panic as a traitor rather than a saviour - as 'an American agent', in Mr Milosevic's words - would not find it difficult to justify his elimination as an act of patriotism, a blow against the Germanic anti-Serbian 'conspiracy'. Certainly, the mood in Belgrade is growing darker.

All evening Belgrade television, the creature of Mr Milosevic, had been denouncing Serbia's 'Catholic Vatican running-dogs and fundamentalist 'mujahedin' enemies' - Milosevic-speak for the Croat and Muslim Bosnian armies.

Just up the road from Prof Bogdanovic's flat a measure of UN sanctions, the all-night petrol queue, had just begun. I counted more than 200 cars. A city under siege, a city at war; so the cliches might run. But in truth, Tito's old capital - ugly, harsh and uncompromising with its 'Novi Beograd', new Belgrade, a suburb of plate-glass and hopeless industrial promise, is a dead city. With its unfinished cathedral, its pompous parliaments, its useless monuments, Belgrade is a capital without a nation.

The great motorways and the massive blue road-signs point to cities which Serbs can no longer visit. Drive up to the Hyatt Hotel in Novi Beograd and you will find red Thunderbird sports cars in front of the entrance. 'The biggest criminals in Belgrade are taking the evening out,' you will be told.

The word 'criminal' - and now the phrase 'war criminal' - are as relevant as the city is irrelevant. The urban sprawl is a constant reminder of hopes and dreams unfulfilled, or dreams betrayed. Which is where Mr Milosevic comes in.

Vreme, the only serious and independent magazine left in Serbia, has understood this theme. If the old Yugoslav ideal, or at least the desire for real democracy in Serbia, is to be nurtured, then the opposition to Mr Milosevic must be a hunt for criminals, for those Serbs who have tried to turn the vision of a Communist utopia into that of a nationalist utopia. What is the connection, the free press here obliquely asks, between Mr Milosevic and 'ethnic cleansing'? Between the old apparatchiks and the new warlords?

The phrase 'war crimes' may come to haunt Mr Milosevic - or so the Belgrade journalists dismissed by the television station hope. Vreme has begun to pursue Mr Milosevic's friend Mihaly Kertesz, former assistant to the State Secretary of the federal Ministry of the Interior, who is widely regarded as the man responsible for 'special operations' in Serbian-held districts of Bosnia and Croatia.

'Whenever he travels, he leaves a trail of weapons behind him,' Vreme reported several weeks ago. In April 1991, police in Herzegovina discovered 87 weapons in a truck belonging to Mr Kertesz, apparently on their way to a Serbian MP. Mr Kertesz has said publicly he would 'die for Milosevic'.

Few of Mr Panic's supporters - and they include the journalists who admire him - doubt that the federal Prime Minister is himself searching for fundamental links between Mr Milosevic and the 'war crimes' in Croatia and Bosnia so bitterly denounced at the United Nations. This is a tactic that could prove far more devastating than Mr Panic's call for Mr Milosevic's resignation and fresh Serbian elections. To turn a nationalist hero into a criminal could destroy Mr Milosevic. But can it be done?

'You must understand how difficult it is to make people in ex- Communist countries respect a constitution and respect the law,' explains a Serbian journalist. 'Post-Communist politics is very devious. The real game is always under the surface. In this world, no word of honour or signature counts - that is why foreigners are always surprised that the politicians here lie. The only thing that counts is what Mr Milosevic calls 'the relationship of forces'.

In this 'game', Mr Panic at least has the support of the new Yugoslav army chief of staff. Zivota Panic (the two men are not related) is a paratroop general whose command of tank units in rural barracks has left him uncontaminated by the army's disgraceful conduct of the war. He is now training new commando units within the old federal army, apparently loyal to Milan Panic's concept of the future.

This currently calls for peace in Bosnia, a lifting of sanctions, the accelerated privatisation of the Yugoslav economy, US-style freedom of the press and - most recently - new Serbian elections and peace in Kosovo.

Prof Bogdanovic finds Mr Panic's 'conversion' mystifying, although he identifies his unsophisticated language as one of his strengths. 'Panic was a very successful businessman so he had this sort of mythical aura about him. The story says that he started with dollars 20 in his pocket. Some of us doubt that. But his first television appearance the night he came back to Yugoslavia provided a sort of cheerfulness among people. He did not speak with sophistication. He had to work on his language. He was not a politician. But he told us we should recognise the pre-war borders as a matter of course and flatly rejected the idea of all Serbs living in one state. He said it in such a natural way that I don't know if he's a dreamer, a naive man or a fantasist.'

The ex-mayor's portrait of Mr Milosevic is equally penetrating. 'From his first appearance, there was something childish about his looks, like a swollen baby of 90 or 100kg. Like a character in an American gangster movie, he always gives himself away. You know at once that he's the murderer. His appearances now are not as frequent as they used to be - which suggests we are approaching the end of the movie.

'This could be horrible, especially when you remember Mr Milosevic's family background, his suicidal tendencies which can draw him to suck in all of us in his downfall.'

(Photograph omitted)