Serbia's Strongman Pumps Up

Last week's referendum gave Milosevic options in Kosovo and beyond. World powers may counter on Wednesday.

On the face of things, President Slobodan Milosevic, the authoritarian leader of Yugoslavia, appears to be in deep trouble.

In Serbia's ethnic Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo, rebels are escalating a fight for secession that could ignite a regional war. In tiny Montenegro, the only other republic remaining in Yugoslavia, the government is pressing a political revolt against Mr. Milosevic with the support of the United States.

Meanwhile, an economic disaster wrought by the 1991-95 wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is deepening, with a recent 45 percent devaluation of the Yugoslav dinar expected to send prices soaring amid 50 percent unemployment.

All of this would overwhelm most political leaders. But not Milosevic.

Ever the consummate Balkan power player, he appears to have gained new strength from an April 23 referendum in which voters overwhelmingly endorsed his rejection of foreign mediation in Kosovo, revered by Serbs as the cradle of their culture and Christian Orthodox faith.

According to some Western diplomats and local analysts, the 97 percent vote against foreign mediation represents a new mandate for Milosevic, confirming his political recovery over the past year from the largest opposition street protests he has ever faced.

"Milosevic not only got people to say 'no' to the West," asserts independent columnist Stojan Cerovic. "He got people to say 'yes' to him and his government."

Beyond that, the referendum results will allow Milosevic to evade personal blame for any new sanctions slapped on Yugoslavia by the Contact Group - the US, Russia, Italy, Germany, France, and Britain - for failing to pursue a political dialogue with ethnic Albanian leaders. The group meets Wednesday in Rome to discuss such sanctions.

Finally, Western diplomats and political experts say, the overwhelming vote - the authenticity of which cannot be contested because of a lack of independent monitoring - gives Milosevic new room in which to deal with Kosovo and Montenegro on his own terms, not those dictated by the Clinton administration and its partners.

Says political scientist Aleksa Djilas, the son of the late Milovan Djilas, the famed Yugoslav anti-communist: "If Milosevic wants to be intransigent or difficult, he can say that the people support him. If he wants to make concessions, he can do that, too."

No rush on Kosovo

Many experts say Milosevic is in no hurry to resolve the Kosovo crisis. In fact, they add, more bloodshed there may actually help him deal with his current difficulties, the most immediate of which is actually the threat posed by President Milo Djukanovic of Montenegro.

"Kosovo is really capturing the attention of the international community, and who is really paying attention to Milo Djukanovic and Montenegro right now and the institutional challenge they represent to Milosevic?" asks a Western diplomat.

Since defeating Milosevic's candidate in October, Mr. Djukanovic has become the Yugoslav leader's greatest critic, blaming him for the Kosovo crisis and failing to implement Western-style reforms. Some of Djukanovic's allies have suggested that Montenegro, which has Yugoslavia's only seaport, might contemplate secession should Milosevic fail to change his policies.

Djukanovic has further enraged Milosevic by lobbying Western governments to exempt Montenegro from sanctions that have been maintained against Yugoslavia since the end of the war in Bosnia. He was warmly welcomed last week in Washington, where Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced $6 million in aid for Montenegro, which accounts for just 5 percent of Yugoslavia's 12 million people.

Milosevic has launched a counteroffensive against Djukanovic in which he is using state-run Belgrade television and other media to accuse his foe of seeking to slice up Yugoslavia by favoring an independent Montenegro.

More critically, the Milosevic-controlled media is charging Djukanovic with backing the secession of Kosovo by funneling arms and cash to ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army. He has been slammed for bringing ethnic Albanians into his government and pictured wearing traditional ethnic Albanian headgear.

The anti-Djukanovic propaganda is part of a strategy aimed at securing the pro-Milosevic Socialist People's Party of Montenegro victory in May elections for the Montenegrin assembly, analysts say. Should it succeed, the party could throw Montenegro into political chaos and portend a recall drive against Djukanovic.

But if Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro and its allies win, he could name deputies to the upper house of the Yugoslav Parliament who could freeze proceedings there, including the passage of constitutional reforms Milosevic must have to transform his office from a largely ceremonial post into a strong presidency.

"Montenegro is a very difficult problem that Milosevic is not sure how to solve," says Vesna Pesic, one of Serbia's main opposition leaders. She says she worries that a Djukanovic victory could spark violence in Montenegro between his government and Milosevic's supporters.

Weighing the costs

Because the anti-Djukanovic campaign depends on continued unrest in Kosovo, analysts expect Milosevic to resist any moves to reduce tensions in the province at least until after the Montenegrin elections. Even then, it remains to be seen how he will address the bloodshed there.

Some experts say that he could not survive politically by allowing the secession of territory of such enormous symbolic importance to the Serb's history, culture, and religion.

They say that he will eventually seek an accommodation with ethnic Albanian leaders that would confer considerable autonomy on Kosovo, perhaps elevating it to the status of a third republic of Yugoslavia, a solution favored by the Clinton administration.

Other analysts disagree. They say Milosevic's rejection of foreign mediation indicates he has already made up his mind to jettison Kosovo, where the 2 million ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1.

But in order justify to his people a decision that many say would constitute their greatest historical calamity, Milosevic will have to wait for the price of holding onto Kosovo to reach an intolerable level.

That means a lot more fighting, deaths, and refugees, and the possible intervention of the US-led NATO alliance.

Milosevic, warns a Western diplomat, "may have reached the decision that Kosovo has to get worse before it gets better."

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