In The Policy Bunker

Belgrade continues to take a pounding, but only becomes more entrenched. Rather than cracks in the regime, Draskovic's statements about the impact of the bombing may only indicate his own powerlessness.

In The Policy Bunker

Belgrade continues to take a pounding, but only becomes more entrenched. Rather than cracks in the regime, Draskovic's statements about the impact of the bombing may only indicate his own powerlessness.

Far from suggesting cracks in the regime, the recent televised statements by Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic seem only to underscore the determination of the government to maintain its current course. Between NATO's decision to step up its bombing campaign and Belgrade's determination not to back down, it seems there is little room for an early resolution of the Kosovo crisis.

In his overtures to the West--rejected by NATO--Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has not changed his basic position: namely, that the bombing must stop before negotiations can resume and that NATO is not welcome on Yugoslav territory. For this reason, he also rejected UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's peace initiative.

Amid this, the Belgrade media have maintained domestic morale by repeating continuously that Serbs are successfully defending themselves from the bombing, even though they have been attacked by the combined might of the 19 most militarily and technically developed countries of the world.

It is this facade that Draskovic attacked so openly in a call-in programme aired on Belgrade's Studio B Sunday night, April 25, and repeated again Monday evening. In an extended discussion, Draskovic urged Yugoslavs not to fool themselves about the possibility of defeating NATO. He said that if the bombing campaign continues for another three weeks, the country will be completely destroyed. And he urged Serbs to understand that world opinion is firmly against them and that the Russians will not come to their aid militarily.

The programme on Studio B, which is controlled by Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Party, sparked strong and largely positive reactions from Belgrade listeners, for whom such simple truths marked some kind of breakthrough. Opposition leaders also called Draskovic to offer their support.

But security forces also threatened to pay a less friendly call, obtaining authorisation the next day to take over the station. Draskovic responded that he would call a demonstration on the streets of Belgrade, and he held an impromptu press conference in the Hyatt Hotel with foreign journalists, expressing fear that he would be attacked. But in the event the station was not touched and the interview was rebroadcast Monday night.

Western media have latched onto the episode as evidence that opposition to Milosevic is opening up, even at senior levels. But the reality is that despite his exalted job title, Draskovic has only been a co-opted decorative figure in government. From a Serbian nationalist, to a democratic oppositionist, to an effective government spokesman, he has discredited himself as the chameleon of Serbian politics.

He has thus been largely left to make his chaotic statements largely on his own, indeed criticised more for the regularity of his appearances on the Western press than whatever it is he might actually say-which few pay attention to. Recently, his position has only weakened, and he has little or no direct communication with Milosevic himself.

The attention to his statements may suggest that some proportion of the population truly support a change in government and media policy in the crisis. But it seems that most viewers latched onto his comments in a very simplistic way, as if he was giving some kind of signal for an early end to the bombing.

Whatever the details of the Draskovic episode, it has only confirmed the government's position within its own policy bunker, from which it remains unwilling to emerge. Indeed, although the Western alliance is yet to state publicly that it intends to launch a ground offensive against Yugoslavia, Yugoslav military planners are reading between the lines of NATO statements and are already planning their defence. The issue is not if but when they will face NATO ground troops, whether in the summer or in the autumn.

Although the Belgrade media report cracks appearing within NATO, most analysts believe that, with its credibility on the line, the alliance is now determined to see its campaign through to the end, which may entail the destruction of the Milosevic regime.

Sources within the Socialist Party of Serbia and the Yugoslav Army predict that the earliest NATO could assemble ground forces for an invasion is the end of May or beginning of June. Until then, they expect no let up in the air campaign, despite the collateral damage in civilian lives and private property.

Pessimists fear that the bombing will continue until the autumn and that a similar fate awaits Serbia to that of Germany in 1945. In this scenario, NATO will not deploy ground troops until October or November and will, in the interim, step up the air offensive.

"During the summer NATO missiles may destroy everything that can be destroyed, even that which is not exclusively linked with military structures," says a source close to military circles. "We can soon expect the list of targets to be widened to include power stations, thermo-electric plants, the sewage system, highways, and similar objects whose destruction would obstruct normal life."

In this scenario, the expectation is that the Serbian population will be able to withstand the bombing campaign through the summer. However, by the beginning of November and the onset of cold weather, the effects of a fuel shortage, power cuts and the lack of certain foods will begin to take their toll.

The destruction of the oil refineries in Novi Sad and Pancevo and of numerous fuel storage depots throughout Serbia, including Valjevo, Pozega, and Smederevo, threatens to cause a serious shortage of fuel, regardless of any blockade of imports from the coast.

As a result of damage to the nitrogen plant in Pancevo, fertilisers are in short supply, and without fuel and fertilisers the agricultural sector will not be able to produce or deliver sufficient quantity of food to market.

By that time, analysts believe, the bulk of the population--whose disposal income is likely to be as little 700 dinars ($30) a month--would be demoralised and facing serious existential problems. Meanwhile, the Yugoslav army would likely be exhausted from waiting and low on fuel, military hardware and ammunition.

Optimists here remain confident that, as so often in the past, the master strategist Milosevic will yet find a way out. His rejection of peace proposals, they argue, simply indicates that he considers the potential costs of signing an accord higher than those of not signing, even if this implies continuation of the bombing.

Since NATO has thus far failed to achieve the aims stated at the outset of its intervention, Milosevic's position has not been weakened by the air offensive. Indeed, as things stand now, Milosevic can with some justification claim to be winning the war.

That said, despite the bravado of the Serbian media, the Yugoslav president knows that the Yugoslav Army cannot win a protracted war of attrition with NATO. Moreover, he is aware that, from his own point of view, it is better to accept NATO deployment in Kosovo than to goad the alliance into attempting the conquest of Serbia proper.

If the optimists are right, Milosevic is likely to seek accommodation some time this summer once he has achieved his military aims of the ground. Having cleansed strategic swathes of territory of ethnic Albanians, he should in a position to offer NATO an accord based on partition and then withdraw his forces from much of the province.

It's not the settlement the West prefers. But it could be a face saver for both sides and spare NATO the risk of a full-scale invasion. If so--whatever the demands of the West and the ruminations of Draskovic--it wouldn't be the first time the Yugoslav president has had the final word.

The reporter is an independent journalist in Belgrade.

Serbia, Kosovo
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