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Sunday, May 30, 1999 Published at 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK

World: Europe

Conspiracy theories take shape

Belgrade: The sleep of reason

By World Affairs Editor John Simpson in Belgrade

In the next seven days we should have a better idea whether this war of miscalculation will stretch out for months and involve an invasion and a fight to the finish, or whether it will end fairly speedily with an unsatisfactory compromise.

Kosovo: Special Report
"If anything can be decided," said the lugubrious Russian negotiator Viktor Chernomyrdin when he arrived here on Friday morning, "it will only be next week."

Jimmy Carter, who makes a better pundit than he did a president, said on television the same day that Mr Chernomyrdin would fail, and that America would be drawn into an all-out war.

In this city, where common sense has faded to a moon-cast shadow, the wackiest opinions flourish: the Russians will move in to save Serbia, Clinton will fall, Italy and Greece will stop Nato invading, a secret weapon has been/will be introduced to sweep Nato planes out of the sky.

By comparison with this sleep of reason, the suggestion that the International War Crimes Tribunal indicted President Milosevic last Thursday on the orders of the United States seemed almost rational.

"We think this decision will possibly break or damage or even destroy the talks," said Dr Slobodan Vuksanovic, the embattled vice-president of the Democratic Party.

His own party leader, Zoran Djindjic, has been saying, from the relative safety of Montenegro, that President Milosevic should be tried for war crimes.

This is not an easy climate for opposition parties, and Dr Vuksanovic likes to play it safe whenever he gets the chance.

Conspiracy theory

[ image: Arms manufacturers suspected]
Arms manufacturers suspected
A senior government official explained to me that the decision by the War Crimes Tribunal was much more far-reaching and complex than anyone had yet supposed.

The American arms industry was worried about losing its contracts now the Cold War was over, so of course it had to make sure that this war would drag on for a long time. No peace agreement could be allowed.

The arms people told Clinton, Clinton told the court. Well, it stands to reason.

This is a country of highly intelligent, educated people who have been under somebody's thumb for a very long time.

If it wasn't the Turks it was the Austrians, and if it wasn't the Austrians it was the European balance of power; and finally it was Tito.

This kind of history, observable in Iran, Iraq, Argentina, Mexico, Greece and many, other semi-colonised countries, always seems to engender a belief in the hidden hand, the secret motive, the complex version as opposed to the obvious one.

[ image: Kosovo refugees: Ethnic cleansing investigated]
Kosovo refugees: Ethnic cleansing investigated
You or I might assume that Judge Louise Arbour instructed her advisers to see whether it was legally possible to indict a serving President for the ethnic cleansing and murder of people in his country: that her officials investigated, and decided it was, and that she then issued the indictment.

No doubt she talked to Nato governments every step of the way: nothing surprising about that, since they were providing her with the evidence her court would require.

But this is too simple for people here. They need to see signs of a plot, of someone's manipulative fingers.

Old dilemma

Instead, the real problem seems to be the old dichotomy: that the Western powers can never quite decide whether to condemn President Milosevic for all the problems which have come upon the former Yugoslavia in the past 10 years (a perfectly justifiable, if simplified, view), or to treat him as the only person who can help them sort out the resulting problems.

This dichotomy, between guilty war leader and essential diplomat, remains as strong and as unresolved as ever.

[ image: Slobodan Milosevic: War Criminal or diplomat?]
Slobodan Milosevic: War Criminal or diplomat?
You see it most strongly in Robin Cook, the UK foreign secretary. Few politicians have been fiercer about President Milosevic than Mr Cook.

The adjectives have flowed freely. In a Kipling poem about the Boer War there is an apposite little phrase about "killing Kruger with your mouth".

And yet directly the International Tribunal agreed with Mr Cook and issued its indictment, he seemed quite affronted at the idea that Nato shouldn't keep on negotiating with President Milosevic. 'It would be irresponsible not to,' he said aggressively.

This is the no man's land which Mr Milosevic has inhabited successfully and with great skill during the 1990s. He might have created the mess in the first place, but no one else can clean it up properly. He knows it, and Nato knows it.

Survival in office

All the same, Judge Arbour has sorted out one question comprehensively.

According to a senior official who might be expected to know there has scarcely been a negotiation during the present crisis at which the question of President Milosevic's future, and that of his family, has not come up in some way.

His survival in office and his freedom from prosecution have been two of his most consistent demands.

Confined to my hotel room by an immobilised leg, as straight and heavy in its plaster cast as an artillery-piece, I am watching a lot of movies at present - when, that is, there is electricity.

In particular I seem to be seeing a lot of films about desperados who take hostages and pay the consequences.

There's a certain aptness to all this. The majority of people in this country feel like prisoners at present, hideously vulnerable to an outside force which can strike them at any time it chooses, according to a logic they cannot understand.

Will the negotiator succeed in releasing us against all the odds? Or will the SWAT team come in shooting?

Viktor Chernomyrdin can be expected to give us a clearer idea when he returns next week.

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