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Saturday, June 12, 1999 Published at 18:56 GMT 19:56 UK

Milosevic's greatest test

No escape for defeated President Milosevic

By John Simpson in Belgrade

President Slobodan Milosevic is now beginning the greatest test of his life.

He has lost control of the place he promised his citizens to defend, his country faces its worst economic problems since 1945, and the political alliance he heads is about to break up.

Anyone else would be getting the escape helicopter fuelled up and checking his foreign bank accounts.

Not for Mr Milosevic. Anywhere he lands - even Greece, even Russia, even the junior partner in the Yugoslav Federation, Montenegro - he will be handed over to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

[ image: Belgraders enjoy a respite, but a hard winter is around the corner]
Belgraders enjoy a respite, but a hard winter is around the corner
Those close to him draw a certain confidence from that.

"He won't leave," I was assured by an official who is on the list of leading Serbian figures unable to travel to Western Europe.

"There may be difficult times in the next few months, but he is the only man who has the skills to govern this country."

There is a certain truth in that. Some of the people who could have taken over from him - President Milutinovic of Serbia, for instance - also appear now on the War Crimes list.

The opposition is as divided and as quarrelsome as ever.

A Saddam for Europe

The winter will be horrible here, without heating plants or oil refineries, the economy will be in a state of collapse, and Mr Milosevic will no doubt do what he usually does when there is no money: he'll print lots more.

But he will still have his hands on the controls of this country's national life.

Despite all the rumours about his health - he is diabetic - he remains in charge.

So Europe now has a Saddam Hussain of its own: a leader who is defeated yet not dislodged, and who has kept his power-base intact.

What is it about these enormous international military operations, which can hit a small radio mast at a range of 200 miles but cannot get rid of the one person who has caused all the trouble?

Ludicrous defiance

"Dear citizens, I wish us a happy peace," said President Slobodan Milosevic on Thursday, at the start of his first and only address to the nation since the conflict began.

He looked uneasy and the studio director who had been summoned into the old Royal Palace to take charge did the President no favours.

[ image: Death notices for Serb victims of Nato in Pristina]
Death notices for Serb victims of Nato in Pristina
Small and lonely in his blue suit, he stood with his back to the fireplace and his hands together in front of him in the position you are always warned against.

As I listened to the word-by-word translation at the time, it seemed a speech of slightly ludicrous defiance and boastfulness.

"We have proved that we have an invincible army, and I am certain, the best army in the world. Never before in our recent history was our nation as united as in this war.

"And never before in our recent history did we have fewer cowards who fled the country to wait in safety for the war to end."

Saddam, too, said much the same thing at the end of the Gulf War, in the face of all the evidence.

In need of reassurance

Yet the full text of the speech reveals something rather different: A need to reassure and to be reassured.

"We haven't given up Kosovo. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country is guaranteed by the Group of Eight major industrial powers and the UN.

"The forces that are coming to Kosovo will be at the service of peace. No matter which countries they come from, the troops will always obey their commands and the command is here to protect the citizens and keep the peace."

Saddam never said anything remotely like this.

It sounded like a plea to live and let live, and certainly a promise to the Serbian population of Kosovo that they had no reason to fear the entry of the British, French, Germans and Americans.

Little cheer

But the speech had only limited effect, as we have seen.

Serbs who cheered as the ethnic Albanians climbed onto their tractors and left Kosovo are now doing the same themselves.

The province has become a tank which has been emptied out at the bottom and is now starting to empty at the top as well.

[ image:
"The only man who can govern this country"
As for Yugoslavia's casualties, official figures seem to exaggerate the number of civilian deaths, which has now been rounded up to 2,000, while minimising the military and police losses.

According to President Milosevic, 567 soldiers and policemen were killed in the whole of Yugoslavia, while General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who commanded the army in Kosovo until moving back across the Serbian border, said 161 of his men had died there.

The discrepancy between these figures and Nato's estimates will take some time to resolve.

Yet as the Nato forces jostle their way into Kosovo, criticising each other and being scooped by the Russians, they cannot claim the overwhelming Agincourt-scale of victory which the Coalition troops achieved in Desert Storm eight years ago.

True, the achievement of the various Nato air forces in carrying out so many sorties with the loss of only two aircraft and no pilots was an extraordinary success.

Truth is a weapon

Yet even this did damage to the Western cause.

[ image:  Serb soldier at Kragujevac army base, bombed by Nato in March]
Serb soldier at Kragujevac army base, bombed by Nato in March
It was the refusal, correctly, of Western satellite television services like the BBC, Sky and CNN to believe the official Yugoslav claims to have shot down 82 Nato aircraft which convinced most otherwise sensible and open-minded Serbs watching them, that the Western media was telling as many lies as their own media.

Statements by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in particular, in the early stages of the war about ethnic Albanian leaders being murdered did nothing to make Nato more credible.

When the Blair government attacked British journalists for reporting uncomfortable truths from Belgrade, even educated and objective-minded people here felt there was little to choose between Nato and their own government.

Truth is a powerful weapon against dictatorships, but it is only useful if everyone uses it all the time.

Crimes and mistakes

Nor was the war fought entirely according to Nato's own self-proclaimed principles.

The bombing of the state television station on 23 April, killed 16 civilians and was not even effective in keeping President Milosevic's propaganda service off the air.

The bombing of Varvarin bridge at 1 pm on market day was also certain to kill ordinary people, and it did so by the dozen.

[ image: They could be here for a long time]
They could be here for a long time
These were not mistakes, like the attack on the refugee convoy or the train crossing the bridge near Leskovac, or the various bombs which went astray.

They were not even like the use, in Nis and elsewhere, of cluster-bombs which killed and maimed innocent people.

They were a deliberate choice, and the War Crimes Tribunal will no doubt be investigating them.

Kipling's lesson

Those who fight a crusade must ensure their methods are as good as their intentions.

When the British, using all sorts of methods worthy of the Tribunal's attention today, finally won the Boer War (which, carefully engineered by the British themselves, began a century ago this October) Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called No End of a Lesson.

Let us hope Nato regards this war as no end of a lesson too. Our intentions were excellent, but we were out of our depth.

We could, I'm afraid, be here for some time.

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