The man who has wrecked a nation and still keeps power

Europe's pariah: Serbian president sidesteps multiple crises while diplomats sit back to watch a master of political illusion

It seems that no leader should be able to survive the loss of two territorial wars, the economic evisceration of a nation and political humiliation at the hands of the international community.

Yet in the past five years Slobodan Milosevic has presided over the collapse of Yugoslavia, tasted defeat in both the wars he prosecuted, has seen Serbia sag under sanctions and has watched 80 days of massive street protests. And still he is in charge.

Less than three months ago, ahead of the elections on 17 November, Serbia seemed in better shape than it had been for years, hopeful of preferential trade deals with Europe and of rejoining the international financial institutions vital to the country's economic health. The world was grateful to Mr Milosevic for (more or less) delivering the Dayton peace plan. His metamorphosis - Butcher of the Balkans to Peacemaker - was almost complete.

Now, Serbia is again a pariah, the stereotypical Balkan nation, unstable, dictatorial and corrupt. "It's hard to argue that Milosevic has not been weakened," said one Western envoy. But he may not have been weakened fatally.

The president showed the opposition his muscle by unleashing the vicious special police against the peaceful protesters even as he prepared for political compromise, agreeing to recognise opposition electoral victories on 17 November. "He showed that he is always in charge, he showed us and the international community that anything is possible when he decides to do it," said a local politician with links to the ruling party.

The violence brought international condemnation but reminded locals of the dangers they faced. "I am the only leader, that was the message," said the politician. "Yes it's irrational, it's crazy, it's stupid, but this is Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic."

Even in compromise, the president is dishonest: his government somehow left the important municipality of New Belgrade off the list of opposition victories it plans to recognise. Presumably he calculates that the opposition will be unable to sustain the fight once it has secured one of its goals. It is typical of the way Mr Milosevic operates. He agrees to do X, prevaricates, and finally, under intense pressure, does X minus Y, where Y represents some small but significant factor. This allows him to deny defeat.

"He is a man who does everything too late, when bad moves are made," Zvonimir Trajkovic, a former Milosevic adviser, told a local paper, in an account of the president's modus operandi. "He is the type of politician who can change his decision ... He tends to conduct talks without witnesses."

A Western diplomat who knows Mr Milosevic adds that the president hates to hear bad news and he rarely takes the advice of any outside a tiny clique grouped around him and his wife, Mirjana Markovic. She is the most hated politician in Serbia but her party, JUL, wields enormous influence. But the president is also the wiliest of operators. "Nothing happens in Serbia without his knowledge," Mr Trajkovic explained.

Mr Milosevic has rarely needed to cheat in past elections: the majority voted for him merely because he was Serbia's boss. With no independent media, state radio and television were free to promote his regime.

The street protests have tapped a deep vein of despair far beyond political opposition; ironically, this means that at least some of those marching in Belgrade might still vote for Mr Milosevic if he runs for the presidency again. He may choose to have his deputies, who won control of the Yugoslav parliament last year, elect him President of Yugoslavia instead.

The local politician says that a third will always support the president and a third will always oppose him. Those in the middle want change, but above all they fear a descent into chaos: they tend to prefer the devil they know. "I will be happy to see Slobo as a distinguished ex-president," said the local politician. "At that moment, Serbia will be a democratic society." And the chances of that happening during this year's scheduled elections? "Zero."

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