'War criminal' is reborn as a peace-maker

BOSNIA CEASEFIRE; Steve Crawshaw looks behind the transformation of Serbia's President

Belgrade - Night after night he pops up on the television news, sitting in his armchair like a monarch on his throne. The voice-over pays tribute to his achievements. He gazes with seigneurial tranquillity while his visitors look smiling or poker-faced. Nowadays, there are more smiles than there used to be. Slobodan Milosevic, who used to be seen as a war criminal, is enjoying his rebirth as Balkan peace-maker.

The Serbian president remains an enigma - just as he has always been. More remarkably, he remains a winner - just as he has always been, even when he had no cards left.

Following this week's announcement of a 60-day ceasefire, the new, peace- loving Mr Milosevic has emerged strengthened, yet again.

Mr Milosevic rose to power by stirring the nationalist pot in the province of Kosovo, where there is an Albanian majority. In the early Nineties, he encouraged armed Serb rebellion in Croatia and "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia - or to put it another way, he helped to defend Serbs from Croat genocide and Islamic fundamentalism.

When I met him in 1992, he seemed astonished that he might be regarded as a war criminal. He reacted as if he was hearing this extraordinary suggestion for the first time. He very much wanted war criminals to be prosecuted, he said; he was in favour of peace. When I asked him why Arkan, an infamous "ethnic cleanser", could live in Belgrade without being arrested, Mr Milosevic became irritable. That line of questioning was closed.

His insistence that his hands were clean was an obvious lie even then - and is now acknowledged as such. As another leading "cleanser", Vojislav Seselj, pointed out in the BBC's recent Death of Yugoslavia series: "Every time, it was President Milosevic who personally asked me to send my forces."

Mr Milosevic has regularly changed his political clothes. He broke with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, last year. As one diplomat suggested: "He was ready to cash in his chips, when he was ahead. He's much more intelligent than Karadzic."

For the West, the attraction of the new Mr Milosevic is clear. Here is a strongman who was able to deliver on his promise of bringing the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table - and, still better, could negotiate on their behalf.

For the Serbs, the attraction is less obvious. A few years ago, as the Yugoslav wars began, Mr Milosevic talked of all Serbs living together in one country - which was interpreted as the desire in effect for a Greater Serbia. Now, four years on, Serbs indeed look likely to end up living in one country - but not where they would like to be. Following the expulsions by Croatian forces from Krajina, there are almost no Serbs left in an area where Serbs have formed the majority for generations.

Logically, this catastrophe should mean Mr Milosevic is seen as a loser at home. But many people no longer seem to care very much about the Bosnian Serbs, or even the Serbs from Krajina. In the words of Vesna Pesic, of the opposition Civic Alliance: "A lot of lies are told about 'brother Serbs'. The solidarity isn't so great." What people in Serbia care about are the UN sanctions and the war.

The opposition press vividly depicts the misery of the thousands of Serb refugees who have flooded into the Bosnian town of Banja Luka with a few bundles of possessions. But Serbian television, the main source of news for most, is keen to look the other way. The official media trumpet an imminent peace and hold out the hope that sanctions may be lifted soon as Mr Milosevic's reward for delivering a deal. As one critic of the government noted bitterly: "Just wait - he'll get the Nobel Peace Prize."

Meanwhile, the unsolved problems pile up, with the Western powers holding different views as to where the mistakes have been made. British officials express unhappiness that Washington, in effect, gave the Croats a green light for "ethnic cleansing" in Krajina, in recent months. The Americans argue that the British reluctance to go along with tough Nato action may have prevented an earlier settlement. London and Washington blame the Germans for forcing the pace on the recognition of Croatia, in 1991. The Germans in turn insist recognition was needed to prevent more Vukovars, referring to the city that was destroyed by the Yugoslav army in late 1991.

As for what happens next, observers are divided into the cautiously optimistic and the deeply pessimistic. Often, a half-hopeful remark is immediately followed by a much longer list of why everything can still go wrong. One senior diplomat with experience of the Balkans noted: "It's not something you can prove. But I have a bad feeling. Everybody's so positive. I can't share it. I think this could just be a pause before the butchery begins again."

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