Why Serb chief whips up anti-US fervor

Propaganda is more crucial than ever to Milosevic's survival.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Western officials have begun to accuse the Serbs of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing." But here in the Yugoslav capital, as NATO airstrikes enter their second week, Serbs and their state television have equally strong words for the US and its allies.

President Clinton is called "Adolf Clinton." NATO soldiers are "assassins." US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is "bloodthirsty."

The broadcasts, by Radio-Television Serbia, are voiced over images of bombed-out buildings and violent anti-NATO rallies around the world.

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Propaganda, which is closely controlled by the regime, has already played a major role in the survival of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It will likely become even more crucial as the war drags on, and life becomes more difficult.

Propaganda is one reason that the Serbs are being swept up in a nationalist frenzy, burning US flags, destroying anything that is a symbol of a NATO country, and claiming they are ready to fight NATO to the death.

"It's appalling," says one critic of Mr. Milosevic who asked not to be identified. "People are starting to think they are mighty and, in some [cases], correct."

Many people say they know the television reports are inaccurate, but they have little choice. Few people, especially outside the major cities, have money to buy a satellite dish to access other newscasts.

Internet and radio alternatives

Local Internet providers, which are also expensive, were expanding services before the crisis but have been almost impossible to sign on to this week. And formerly independent radio stations have either switched to a patriotic line or been closed by the government.

Belgrade's independent B-92 radio station was shut down the day before airstrikes began, but is now posting updates on its Web site.

Furthermore, most critics of the government have stopped voicing their opinions publicly. They are afraid of being accused as traitors, something that happened this week to Zoran Djindjic, the leader of the reformist Democratic Party.

"We expect that this crisis might turn into a crackdown on the opposition," he says. "Now because of the state of war and the [possible] restoration of capital punishment, one could even be shot because of accusations of being a traitor."

The death penalty already exists at the level of the Serbian republic, but this week Serbia's justice minister recommended that the federal Yugoslav government follow suit. Military courts have also been established, presumably to deal with draft dodgers and deserters. The borders have been closed for fighting-age men.

In an effort to get the West's perspective across, Mr. Clinton sent a message after airstrikes began to Serbs, via satellite transmission. He said the bombing is directed not at them but at their leader Milosevic. Few here, however, heard the message - or believed it.

"The Americans have gone mad because of us," says Dejan Svonja, a university student. "They want to finish with us once and for all. Because of that we have to defend our country."

Another student, who watched Western news from a satellite transmission, accused American journalists of bias when one report made a blunder and said the Serbs had ethnically cleansed Slovenia, the former Yugoslav republic that seceded in 1991 without any heavy fighting.

How Kosovo is reported

Moreover, few in Belgrade are aware that tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees have already fled Kosovo, while the region burns at the hands of the Serbian and Yugoslav forces. The Serbs think the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, or as they call them, "the terrorists," started the fighting and that the police are only defending themselves.

"I think the situation with refugees is exaggerated," says a pensioner who was taking a stroll downtown. "The Albanians are not refugees because of us Serbs. They are running away from the bombs. The American propaganda is a complete setup."

The Serbian media are backed by official sources, who present a picture that Yugoslavia is winning its war with NATO. That was not helped by the crash Saturday night of a US fighter plane.

At a press conference this week, a Yugoslav Army spokesman said their air defense system had downed seven planes, three helicopters, three non-piloted aircraft, and 30 cruise missiles - far more than NATO officials have reported.

In addition to news broadcasts, television stations in Serbia have shown movies this week including "Wag the Dog," in which a fictitious US president starts a war in Albania to divert attention from a sex scandal; "Apocalypse Now," about AWOL US soldiers in Vietnam; and an old film glorifying Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and triggered World War I.

In another sign of the diverging viewpoints between Yugoslavia and the West, the Yugoslav Embassy and ambassador's residence in Washington were vacated early yesterday, after US officials informed embassy staff they had to leave.

Back in Belgrade, demonstrations at noon every day in the city center have turned into a bizarre mix of music, defiance, activism, and nationalism. A recent event featured a performance by Ceca Raznjatovic, the wife of Zeljko "Arkan" Raznjatovic, whom the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague indicted yesterday for alleged atrocities during the war in Bosnia. As Ceca sang, Arkan looked on proudly.

Ceca sings turbo folk, a mix of pop and traditional music. It first became popular during the Bosnian war and could be making a comeback during this one.

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