Towards A Glorious Defeat

Belgrade is putting out signals that it is open to a settlement. The key question is how it will carry along its own public opinion - and crush dissent afterwards.

Towards A Glorious Defeat

Belgrade is putting out signals that it is open to a settlement. The key question is how it will carry along its own public opinion - and crush dissent afterwards.

The Yugoslav public is being groomed to begin celebrating a glorious defeat. With the country devastated from more than eight weeks of NATO bombing, and dissent growing in the Serbian heartland, Belgrade has decided that it must find a way to bring the campaign to a halt, sources close to the regime say.

Although willing in principle to accept all NATO's demands, it wants a face-saving formula and a free hand outside Kosovo in the rest of the Yugoslav federation.

To prepare the ground for an agreement, Yugoslav military and police have already been tasked with spreading the word among the people that Yugoslavia will soon be victorious in the "unjust struggle against NATO," sources say.

With opposition parties and independent media muzzled, and information about the real extent of the damage inflicted by the air strikes is unavailable, analysts here believe that public opinion can be made to swing rapidly behind any agreement Belgrade signs up to.

The biggest challenge is from the street protests that began this week in the southern Serbian towns of Krusevac, Aleksandrovac and elsewhere. Between 2,000 and 3,000 soldiers appear to have tried to escape military service in Kosovo. In areas where many men have been mobilised, friends and family are venting their frustration at the war in isolated but significant outbreaks of dissent.

The returning soldiers, young, exhausted and frightened, say they are not willing to die for Kosovo when they believe Serbia is likely to give it up anyway. They report that, at moments, command and communications within the province have become chaotic, leaving them dangerously vulnerable to NATO attacks.

Yet military authorities have taken steps to address the soldiers' concerns, while also making clear that most of the troops are staying in Kosovo. Meantime, in what could be a harbinger of things to come, Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj has accused the dissenters of being traitors instigated by NATO.

Indeed, many fear that the regime will use an end to hostilities to ratchet up domestic oppression across the rest of the country. According to the political rumour mill, which is now in overdrive, it appears likely that Belgrade intends to maintain the state of war many months after air strikes have ended in order to shore up its ever-diminishing power base in the unruly second republic of Montenegro, in the province of Vojvodina and in Serbia proper.

In the event of a peace agreement which leaves Milosevic in power, Serbia is unlikely to benefit from international aid for post-war reconstruction. As a result, an already destitute population will become increasingly desperate.

Among the more pessimistic prognoses for the country's future are fears that lists have already been drawn up of individuals earmarked for liquidation. In addition to political opponents, these lists are said to include people who have failed to show sufficiently loyalty by, for example, failing to respond to the draft, boycotting the elections, leaving the country, or even working for foreign companies and media.

The difficulty for Belgrade is not to give the impression to its own public that it is caving in to NATO's demands, but to be seen to be reaching a mutually acceptable agreement.

The magic word which state-controlled media have begun to use is "compromise". Belgrade has said that it is willing to reach an agreement based on the statement a few weeks ago by the G8 economic powers, which was effectively a restatement of NATO's five tough demands for an end to the bombing campaign, but with some room to manoeuvre.

Belgrade will only settle if it can portray a deal as a mutually acceptable agreement between the alliance and the Yugoslav authorities. For Belgrade, the key area for fudge is in replacing the demand for a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo with a UN-led force, including a strong Russian contingent--a shift which the G8 statement seems to allow.

"The credibility of both sides would thus be preserved, but also the door would be open for a solution to everybody's satisfaction", says a senior Serbian official who wished not to be named.

He also claims that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is willing to co-operate on condition that the West drop its rhetoric about war crimes. Yugoslav emissaries have been trying to inject this point into the diplomatic talks via their Russian interlocutors.

In fact, Belgrade appears more concerned by events in Montenegro than by the NATO air campaign.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic is increasingly pursuing an independent foreign policy and has been invited to participate in a German-sponsored conference of Balkan states scheduled for late May, to which Serbia has been excluded. He even paid a surprise visit to Bonn last week to meet up with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder with Zoran Djindjic, leader of the opposition Democratic Party and former mayor of Belgrade, in the Montenegrin delegation.

Djindjic has now spent more than a month in Montenegro, where it is believed he is attempting to build and co-ordinate a new opposition block with a view to the post-war settlement.

Regardless of their many differences and personal rivalries, Serbia's opposition political parties recognise the inevitability of an armed international presence in Kosovo, but wish to find a formula by which Kosovo remains part of Serbia. They also seek a settlement which protects them and others with alternative points of view from reprisals.

Opposition parties are acutely aware of the toll that the NATO air strikes have taken on efforts to democratise Serbian society during the past decade. As much as they wish to see a halt to the bombing campaign, they fear that an agreement on Milosevic's terms will simply herald another clamp-down.

The author is an independent journalist in Belgrade and a correspondent for IWPR, whose name has been withheld.

Serbia, Kosovo
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