Serb defiance shows some wear

As power goes out, morale dips. Milosevic pursues several diplomatic

As friends Nikola and Voja sat in a cluttered apartment lit by a single candle, they talked about - what else, politics.

NATO bombers had just knocked out the power supply to much of the country. Money was becoming increasingly scarce. Morale was at rock bottom.

"What can we do?" asked Nikola. "This is like fighting against God."

Six weeks into a NATO bombing campaign, there is a gradual shift in attitude here - from defiant to desperate. It extends from the streets to the upper levels of the government, where Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is making his first significant peace overtures to the West.

More and more Serbs now say they would rather take up a pen to sign a peace deal than pick up weapons to fight NATO.

"People are tired of this," says Nenad Canak, an opposition political leader. "Only generals think there are simple solutions to complex problems."

The shift in opinion is the strongest indication yet that airstrikes are taking their toll on Serbia, although it still falls well short of capitulation.

"I did not expect [the electrical systems to be bombed]," says a downtown vendor. "I thought NATO would have come to its senses before this. We are such a small country."

The surprise release of three US soldiers May 2 - to Jesse Jackson - may have been a first signal by Mr. Milosevic, a seasoned politician who is better known as a negotiator than a commander in chief.

"Milosevic has stepped up his activities to find a way out of the current deadlock situation in which his country is facing increasing difficulties," states VIP, a well-respected, independent daily newsletter in Belgrade.

VIP goes on to say that Milosevic may accept armed UN peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, half of which would be Russian. The force, however, would exclude troops from NATO countries that took part in the airstrikes. The level of troop armament is up for debate, VIP states.

Although such an offer from Milosevic does not meet NATO's demands, it would represent a clear diplomatic offering. The Yugoslav president is pursuing several diplomatic fronts:

*Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, who almost acts as a defense lawyer for the Serbs, met May 3 with President Clinton, who has now raised the possibility of a respite in the bombing if Milosevic accepts a troop pullout from Kosovo, the return of all refugees, and deployment of an international security force.

*After gaining the release of the three US soldiers, the Rev. Mr. Jackson took a letter from Milosevic to Mr. Clinton, requesting a face-to-face meeting.

*The Karic brothers, wealthy Serbian businessmen who are close to Milosevic's inner circle, have been playing an increasingly active role, contacting US politicians and putting out information about what Milosevic will accept, according to sources. The Karic brothers were also thought to have been involved in the release of the US soldiers.

Analysts say that the Serbs are just waiting for a positive response from the West. "For real diplomatic progress, we need a stoppage of the bombing, at least temporarily," says an opposition politician in Belgrade.

The day after the US soldiers were released, however, NATO took out much of the country's electric supply - a harsh blow that stunned residents.

The Yugoslav Army (VJ) is also showing signs of wear. Transport routes between north and south have been almost completely cut off, isolating the heaviest concentration of VJ troops in Kosovo.

When a civilian passenger bus was allegedly bombed by NATO this week in western Kosovo, Army officials did not take journalists to see the wreckage, saying that too many bridges and roads had been destroyed.

On May 4, Pentagon officials said a US Air Force F-16 shot down a Yugoslav MIG-29 fighter.

According to a military source, VJ troops have abandoned their barracks in Belgrade, perhaps out of fear of bombing. Some are sleeping in the parks and some are going house to house asking if they can sleep in residential basements.

In Kosovo, however, the VJ appears to be winning small battles with ethnic Albanian fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army, who are regrouping in northern Albania and making forays into Yugoslavia, according to an official VJ magazine.

Milosevic may be in a position to negotiate because the opposition has all but disappeared from the political scene.

Vuk Draskovic, the vice premier who was fired April 28, has toned down his rhetoric and stopped criticizing the government for deceiving the public. At a press conference May 4 his comments dovetailed with those coming from Milosevic's channels - even though Mr. Draskovic said he had not spoken to the president since he was fired.

"NATO is not the world's government," Draskovic said. "The [United Nations] Security Council is."

Despite the apparent steps toward compromise, however, public opinion still is far from what NATO had hoped for when it started the air campaign. There is still no strong anti-Milosevic sentiment, and Serbs still do not welcome Western-style democracy.

NATO airplanes are dropping fliers on the outskirts of Belgrade - which have become a new source of ridicule and a reminder of when the Nazis used similar tactics in World War II.

"As long as Milosevic continues with his atrocities, destruction, raping, and killing throughout Kosovo, Serbia is going to fall deeper and deeper into global isolation," says one flier. "Don't be hostages to Milosevic's atrocities."

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