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Sunday, June 6, 1999 Published at 07:43 GMT 08:43 UK

World: Europe

Belgrade looks ahead

News of the peace plan hits Belgrade streets

By BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson

The bombs may stop falling within hours, yet this is a country which feels nothing but emptiness about the present and gloom about the future.

Kosovo: Special Report
No cars drive through the streets, honking their horns. No flags are being waved. No one is holding a street party.

The headlines in the newspapers and on television news faithfully report what they have been told to: that this is a remarkable achievement by Serbia, that it has succeeded in keeping control of Kosovo, that its army is undefeated. Everyone knows it's a lie.

Terrible times, as bad as anything that has been inflicted on the rest of the former Yugoslavia in the name of Serbian nationalism, could lie ahead for this country if President Milosevic is not replaced quickly by some strong yet moderate political force.

The trouble is, he isn't going to go easily, the strong political forces here are not moderate, and the moderate forces are not strong.

[ image: Belgraders carry on with life as though nothing has happened]
Belgraders carry on with life as though nothing has happened
And so people are going through the motions, living their lives exactly as though nothing has happened, their feelings and opinions on autopilot.

In Belgrade they saunter along, the girls in their skimpy summer clothes, the young men laughing with their friends, the older people hurrying to jobs they are lucky enough to have kept or worrying about finding enough food to buy.

In the open-air cafes they sit and read Politika and Blic, and reach their own conclusions about this extraordinary victory their president has won.

Soon, he will be forced to lift the state of emergency he imposed at the start of the war, and the more independent newspapers and radio and television stations can go back to reporting something more like reality. Those will be dangerous times for Mr Milosevic.

Already his control-system is crumbling. The officers who censor our television reports at the Army Press Centre - decent men, embarrassed by the unclean job they have to do - have ceased to cut out criticisms of their president. Day after day, night after night, our reports are passed without change.

Weak political challenge

But while President Milosevic becomes weaker, the political challenge to him remains feeble. Scarcely any politicians here - the former army general Vuk Obradovic from the small Social Democratic Party is a shining exception - had the courage to speak out in Belgrade while the war was at its height.

[ image: Vuk Draskovic favoured the peace plan]
Vuk Draskovic favoured the peace plan
Others, like Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party, attacked President Milosevic from the safety of Montenegro, while his colleagues desperately tried to distance themselves from him.

The erratic Vuk Draskovic, a heavy-duty nationalist with genuinely democratic instincts, joined President Milosevic in government before the war started, and can probably be lured back again now.

There remains the ferocious Vojslav Seslj, leader of the extreme nationalist Radical Party and vice-premier in the Serbian Government, who has taken the lead in attacking President Milosevic for caving in to Nato's ultimatum.

If he leaves the government, he would be a very dangerous element to have on the loose.

[ image: Vojslav Seslj could be a future threat]
Vojslav Seslj could be a future threat
During the brief debate in the Serbian parliament on Thursday at which the Nato demands were accepted, Seslj shouted 'Traitor!' at Vuk Draskovic, who was in favour, and made a lunge for him.

Seslj and his followers are men to whom violence comes easily: his name was scrawled on the doors and walls of dozens of houses in Croatia and Bosnia where people were murdered or ethnically cleansed in President Milosevic's earlier wars.

Already serious people here are talking of the dangers of civil war. That may be too alarmist; but the materials lie readily to hand, and there are plenty of hard men willing to set light to it. President Milosevic may even be keen to encourage these fears, in order to be able to present himself as the one man who can keep the country together.

If he sacks Seslj and gets Vuk Draskovic to join him in a more moderate coalition the people of this country might well prefer that to the threat of open violence in the streets. It would be a very Milosevic thing to do.

The Strongman of Yugoslavia

The fact is, much of the propaganda from the White House and Downing Street and the Foreign Office about President Milosevic was wide of the mark. He is responsible for a great deal of evil and thoroughly deserves to stand trial in The Hague for what he has done, but he is not the Hitler or the Stalin de nos jours. Instead he is that rather old fashion figure American journalists used to call a Strongman.

[ image: President Milosevic: Testing times ahead]
President Milosevic: Testing times ahead
The United States and Britain have approved of and sold weapons to many such leaders over the years, from Central America to Chile, Iran, Indonesia and Egypt.

The Strongman does not forbid opposition to himself, he frightens it, bribes it and cheats it. He rigs the votes, just as President Milosevic did a couple of years ago, and he buys off his critics, just as President Milosevic bought off Vuk Draskovic.

The difference between Mr Milosevic and the regional leaders Washington and London now approve of is not great. President Tudjman of Croatia has overseen plenty of ethnic cleansing in his time, and President Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzogovina allowed his forces to fire on his own people during the siege of Sarajevo, in order to attract the sympathy of the West.

Yet such unappetising characters both appear now on the good-guy side of the ledger, and will be showered with American and European money. In these days of progressive wars it is the victor who pays reparations, not the vanquished.

Unwinnable war

A couple of months ago, to report what ordinary people felt here was enough to earn the accusation from anonymous toadies in the Ministry of Defence and at Nato of being pro-Serbian.

'Pro-Serbian', in these terms meant helping President Milosevic. I don't know any of the British, American, French or German journalists here who would want to do that.

On the other hand, the experience of being in Belgrade during the war has made all of us, I think, feel sympathetically about the people of the country; just as being in Zagreb during Croatia's war with Serbia made us feel sympathetically about Croatians and being in Sarajevo made us feel pro-Bosnian.

[ image: Serbians: Anxious about what lies ahead]
Serbians: Anxious about what lies ahead
Now another conflict is over, I feel intense sympathy towards the people here - especially the 78% who voted against President Milosevic at the last election.

They have been hijacked by him in to an unwinnable war against the countries they admire most in the world. The Serbs are not always easy people to like, but they have deserved a great deal better than the circumstances they find themselves in this weekend.

At the hospital where they operated on my injured leg a couple of weeks ago I lay on a trolley last Friday and watched a surgeon examine the excellent results of their handiwork, carried out under difficult circumstances.

As he manipulated my knee I asked him how he felt now that there would be no bombing to disrupt his operations. He looked out of the window at the lovely June day, and for a moment I thought there were tears in his eyes.

"I don't know whether to be relieved or depressed," he said. There will be further grounds for depression before life can become normal again here.

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