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Milosevic's Victory

Under whatever flag foreign troops may come to Kosovo, there's no doubt who will remain in control in Belgrade.

Even without last week's horrible blunders - the cluster bombing of an open air market in Serbia's southern city of Nis and the accidental missile attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade - it seems increasingly clear that NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia is going nowhere.

Far from a declaration of weakness, Yugoslavia's announcement of the withdrawal of some forces from the province may in fact be a signal of victory.

Six weeks into the bombing campaign, ethnic Albanians continue to flee Kosovo, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refuses to allow NATO in, and the only visible achievement is the devastation of Serbia's infrastructure and economy. Even senior NATO officials, notably Gen. Klaus Naumann, have recognised that the air campaign has failed to halt the ethnic cleansing or remove Milosevic from power.

The West's miscalculations continue. The threat of force did not make the Serbian strongman back down. He did not seize the initial wave of attacks

as a perfect excuse for getting rid of Kosovo. Subsequently the Serbian masses have failed to rise up and topple the tyrant. Now, some analysts suggest that Milosevic is in fact mad, a Nero-like character fiddling for his own pleasure while his country burns.

Far from being mad, however, Milosevic has outwitted the Western powers in a series of well-calculated moves, and now stands a good chance of victory. Though he may eventually lose Kosovo, it seems increasingly likely that his hold on power in Serbia will be cemented well into the next century.

The West's key mistake was to threaten Milosevic with air strikes while, at the same time, ruling out the deployment of ground troops.

It was the threat of ground troops, and not air strikes, that Milosevic really feared, and for that reason he started massing his forces along the border with Macedonia and Albania months before the NATO offensive. The Albanians' initial rejection of the Rambouillet agreement gave him an extra couple of weeks to lay mines and build additional fortifications along NATO's potential entry routes via Macedonia and Albania.

In order to protect his rear, Milosevic also had to deal with Kosovo's hostile Albanians, many of whose leaders had been calling for bombing for many months. Hence the need to remove the population.

It is now clear that Belgrade prepared the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, code-named Operation Horseshoe, months in advance - to be executed in the event of NATO bombing. As a result, while NATO war planes were busy attacking Serbian anti-aircraft defences and empty barracks in Belgrade, Yugoslav Army and paramilitary forces in the field were able to cleanse large swathes of the province of its Albanian population.

The expulsions were thus not simply wanton acts of retaliation motivated by ethnic hatred, but well-prepared moves with a military rationale. The refugee crisis has also destabilised Macedonia and Albania and obliged NATO to become involved in a humanitarian effort of providing food and shelter, further undermining the alliance's ability to prepare an invasion.

Some Western diplomatic sources have acknowledged that NATO had details of operation Horseshoe as early as January - that is, almost three months before it began - but still failed to consider the potential scale of the catastrophe. When the West finally began debating a ground invasion of Kosovo, by April, Milosevic was already well prepared for such an eventuality.

Continuing to exclude the possibility of a ground invasion, West has left itself with two simple options: either prolong the bombing indefinitely, hoping that Milosevic will eventually break down, or return to the negotiating table to face an emboldened Milosevic.

For now, the West seems intent on pursuing both strategies at once. Again, Milosevic is ahead of the game - signalling that he is ready to do business with the West. He has released three captured US soldiers; allowed moderate Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova to go to Italy; and indicated that he may even be ready to allow foreign troops into Kosovo, provided that they do not enter as part of NATO.

He has also enabled Russia to return to the centre of international diplomacy, which is enough to earn him Kremlin's eternal gratitude. And the West appears to have reduced its demands: Milosevic no longer has to pull all his troops out of Kosovo in order to stop the bombing but according to last week's speech by Bill Clinton, "substantial withdrawal" would be enough. Hence Milosevic's latest offer to reduce his forces in Kosovo.

The most likely outcome therefore appears to be a negotiated settlement by which NATO countries enter Kosovo under a UN banner, accompanied by a contingent of Russian troops under separate command.

Not only will Milosevic have chosen the timing of the deal, but he should also have some say in the numbers and the mandate of the peacekeeping force through the Russian and Chinese seats in the UN Security Council.

Although Milosevic would also need to accept the right of the Albanians to return, many can be expected not to do so. And in any event, he will be getting a far better deal than that which he rejected in Rambouillet. Once again, he will emerge as a "factor of stability in the Balkans", and a "guarantor of peace".

The price of his victory will be paid by Serbia itself and especially by those Serbs who have opposed Milosevic. The country's industry and infrastructure have been devastated and Milosevic's position has never been stronger.

Milosevic will be able to boast that he has stood up to the most powerful military alliance in the world. Some Serbs may dare to ask whether enduring the bombing campaign was worth it. But Milosevic's police, fresh from

Kosovo and empowered by draconian laws passed during the war, will ensure that the question will not be asked too loudly.

Dejan Anastasijevic is a journalist with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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