IF YOU want to talk to the free press in Belgrade, hold your breath. The cigarette smoke in Radomir Diklic's cluttered office is as thick as fog, great swirling blue wreaths of it that have the ladies banging open the windows for air above Srpskih Vladara street. Mr Diklic smokes himself, of course, a small agitated man with a pot-belly and uncombed hair who breathes through his cigarette until I am coughing over my notes. But there is a lot to cough about.
"We had our friends from the Western embassies here," he says. "We had a lot of contacts and we warned them that the day the first bomb drops, they could count on the fact that everyone will be for the defence of their country. When our country is attacked, we must defend it - that's how we are educated. We told the diplomats this before the war and they reported this back to their governments. But they said their advice was overruled by their governments. And you people - Nato - did a good job for Slobodan Milosevic. It was the best present he could be given. For ordinary people, Milosevic is now a god; when you bombed, he became a symbol of our country - which is awful."
Mr Diklic stops for breath; we all do as we sit round the heavily scratched round wooden table in the "Beta" news agency office, virtually the only bit left of Yugoslavia's free press. A new cigarette flips into the Diklic mouth, a new cloud moves over his face. "Look at Milosevic's position now. If there's no bombing of civilian targets, he says `That's good for me'. If there are no Nato ground troops, he says `That's good for me'. If there's only bombing with `collateral' damage, well he says, `That's quite good for me - and it will give me space to solve the problem of the KLA.' That's it, do you see? You bomb and we can `clean' out the south and push out the KLA."
Mr Diklic is a cynical man - he deserves to be - and believes the Americans are bad partners for Europe in solving European problems, especially in the Balkans. "They took the side of the KLA after the KLA was almost destroyed last year. They created [KLA chief Hashem] Thaqi. They recreated the KLA and pushed aside [Kosovo political leader Ibrahim] Rugova. And when the Americans went to Rambouillet, there was cheating. [US Secretary of State Madeleine] Albright gave a piece of paper to Thaqi saying, `The Americans will have nothing against a referendum after three years', and as for the disarmament of the KLA, [US envoy Christopher] Hill said America would consider the KLA had disarmed `if we cannot see your arms' ... The moment the first bombs dropped and the KLA attacked the Serbs under the bombs, they were a Fifth Column - and there is no mercy for fifth columnists."
The Diklic view of Kosovo is comparatively simple. President Milosevic did a favour to Rugova by almost destroying the KLA and now he is putting Rugova back in the saddle. "Milosevic needs Rugova - because Rugova signed the Rambouillet agreement and Rugova is now making appeals for peace. Officially, for the Albanians, Rugova is still `president' of Kosovo. And he met Milosevic last week - that film of his meeting was real. He signed a document. Nato is not telling the truth about this being old film. Back in October, Rugova sat on the right of Milosevic. This time, he was sitting on the left. Rugova was here."
Diklic does not regard Rugova as a corrupt man - more a tool. Had Rugova not vetoed Albanian participation in elections, Milosevic would have lost 23 Kosovo Serb deputies in parliament. "If the Albanians had voted, they would have got Milosevic out - with 1,200,000 Albanian votes, they would have been able to create the government of Serbia, with an opposition."
Betrayal is a word that often crops up in Diklic's thoughts. Vuk Draskovic, the leader of the Serbian Renewal Party (SPO) and one of the heroes of the opposition revolt two years ago, is condemned through the cigarette smoke as both vain and prepared to deal with Milosevic in return for the post of vice-president. "Milosevic destroyed his potential enemies inside the opposition by keeping the SPO and the Radicals in a permanent fight while Vuk entered a coalition government `to save Serbia'."
No, Diklic says, Nato is not winning its war. "The Yugoslav army are quite professional - remember that our country under Tito was prepared for 50 years for attacks. They know how to defend every single stone in this country and we learnt the lessons of the Iraqis - we kept our radars switched off. These buildings and barracks that Nato bombs are all empty. The Americans cannot imagine soldiers who do not go back to their barracks to wash and eat each night. Our soldiers can sleep for a month in the woods - we are not a very hygienic country."
Diklic grins. But he has little to smile about. Since the B-92 radio station was closed down by Milosevic - on the spurious grounds that its transmitters were stronger than agreed under licence - the staff of "Beta" news are waiting for government lawyers to turn up at their smoke-shrouded offices. Diklic wants an end to the bombing. "If this goes on, all the small roots of democracy here will be completely destroyed and Yugoslavia will become a kind of little Korea, although we'll never starve. There will be no peace in the Balkans unless there is a democratic Serbia. And with the bombing, there can be no democracy."
But if it ends? "If it finishes quickly, Milosevic will have to agree on something over Kosovo. And when the war stops, all of us who think differently to Milosevic, we will start to fight again. One day, someone will have to explain how and why all this happened..."
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