Why US bombs failed to topple Milosevic

A year after NATO began air campaign, iron Yugoslav leader continues to smother dissent.

It was supposed to be the winter of discontent for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

The Serbs were cold from a lack of heating oil, hungry from a meager harvest, and angry from losing Kosovo. It was, some US officials thought, the perfect time for an uprising, when the people of Belgrade would take to the streets in protest, overthrow the Balkans' most durable leader, and proclaim a new era of democracy in Yugoslavia.

How wrong they were.

A year later, on the anniversary marking the beginning of 78 days of NATO airstrikes, the Yugoslav president is as strong as he has been in years. His survival is a story of shrewdly marshaling international allies, blanketing his people with propaganda, and steadily suppressing dissent.

Defying the prognosticators, Mr. Milosevic's domestic rivals have crumbled and his people have been numbed to the point where most no longer care about politics, have strength for demonstrations, or believe in the Western concept of democracy.

Milosevic, it turns out, will probably outlast US President Bill Clinton, who was the driving force behind NATO's unprecedented intervention into a sovereign country.

"Ultimate removal of Milosevic is up to the Serbian people," NATO Secretary General George Robertson said recently - in contrast to the alliance's bravado from a year ago. "We don't know how the Serb people will get rid of him ... but in due course he will go."

How Milosevic survived is nothing new. Rather, he used tactics honed in three previous lost wars: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia. Kosovo would be his fourth.

The first factor he relied on was miscalculation by the West. The US-led international community underestimated his staying power and overestimated his opposition. Being an indicted war criminal never really hurt Milosevic - analysts say it just hardened his resolve and reinforced his bunker mentality.

Using bombs to advantage

According to Stojan Cerovic, a Serbian journalist working for the US Institute for Peace in Washington, Milosevic made a risky decision while his forces were attacking ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and NATO was threatening air strikes: He decided that bombing would allow him to justify a crackdown at home and build on an us-against-the-world mentality.

"He didn't see any risk in bombing," Cerovic says. "He accepted the idea of intervention." Furthermore, Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic, were convinced that other countries would become outraged at what they considered American hegemony, and that leaders outside the NATO power loop would rally around the Serbs - if not during the bombing then in the months following. To some extent, they were right: China and Russia fed Milosevic enough cash and oil to carry him through the hardest times.

A statement this week by Serbia's ruling Socialist party sounded a note of victory: "Support for Yugoslavia, its people, and leadership is growing worldwide. There is widespread condemnation of the policy of diktat, hegemony, and neo-colonialism, which the US administration is trying to impose on the rest of the world."

Once the outside enemy had been defined, and Kosovo had been all but lost to United Nations-backed peacekeepers, Milosevic moved to tighten control within his own borders, creating a sense of fear and paranoia. Those who thought about resisting had to think twice. The international community could do nothing more than watch.

He cracked down on media, played opposition politicians against one another, and convinced his citizens that he was an inevitable president. His message was hammered home by hour after hour of propaganda on state-run television.

While other countries in the Balkans were undergoing economic reform, Milosevic dictated an agenda of historical Serbian land claims, national loyalty, and anti-Western isolation. It was an agenda that only he could win.

Prominent figures in the fields of organized crime, paramilitary activity, government, and the political opposition were gunned down in the streets. The killers were never found. But the message was clear: No one was safe.

Meanwhile, the US was unable to boost the already-splintered opposition, nor could it prod the Yugoslav Army into overthrowing its supreme commander. Any support the US gave was hard for the recipient to swallow; it was like conspiring with the enemy.

Wishful thinking

"[US policy] was a holding operation based on the assumption that Milosevic would be gone by the end of the year," says John Fox, director of the Washington office of the Open Society Institute. "There was a lot of hopeful thinking on the part of the [Clinton] administration."

Top US administration officials believed that Montenegro, Yugoslavia's junior federation partner, would influence Serbia with its own burgeoning democracy movement. They thought street demonstrations would build momentum and disgruntled soldiers would turn on their leaders.

This month, the State Department unveiled a wanted poster with Milosevic's picture and a $5 million reward offer. "Now it's clear that the only way Milosevic will go is through scheduled elections," Mr. Fox says. It remains to be seen how Milosevic will handle a presidential vote in 2002. One theory is that he will try to get a loyal member of his inner circle elected to the top position and move to a more ceremonial post. Another possibility, analysts say, is that he could restructure the country enough to justify a new constitution.

Or, says Mr. Cerovic, the Serbian journalist, "he will try to create chaos, to declare a state of emergency and postpone elections."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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