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Ethnic Discord : Despair and Disillusion Dampen Serbian Support for War in Bosnia : While hard-liners in Belgrade oppose potential settlement, others long for peace.


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Until the rain came, the men and women stood under the equestrian statue of Prince Mihailo, who freed Serbia from Turkish rule more than a century ago, and raised their voices to the dream of a Greater Serbia.

"Karadzic! Karadzic!" they shouted, hailing the hard-line Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who at that moment was holding U.N. peacekeepers, and most of the world, hostage.

"Down with Slobo! Down with traitors!" they continued, attacking Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, leader of what's left of Yugoslavia, who in their view has sold out their Bosnian Serb brethren in the name of political expediency.

They listened to the fiery rhetoric of nationalist intellectuals, politicians and university professors who confirmed their every fear.

The Muslims who rule Bosnia, they were told, are child-murderers whose allegiance lies with Turkey, which brought Islam to the heart of Europe centuries ago. Schools in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, they were told, force students to learn the Turkish language. The Muslims and the Croats, they were told, are carrying out a genocide of the Serbian people.

"Only the unification of the Republika Srpska [the Bosnian Serb republic] and the Krajina Serb Republic [of Croatia] with Serbia gives us the possibility of self-defense," said writer and politician Slobodan Raketic.

"Only the unification of the Republika Srpska and the Krajina Serb Republic can be the salvation for all Serbian people."

The crowd cheered, then scattered with the rain, their number never really exceeding 500 or so.

The nationalist vision of a Greater Serbia--the goal of uniting the Serbs of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia into one nation that has inspired Europe's most brutal bloodshed since World War II--lives on.

But here in Belgrade--where a once-prosperous population is beginning its fourth year of economic sanctions--apathy, desperation and disillusion have dampened the furious nationalist fires.

"I support Serbian unification," said Spiro Slijepcevic, 56, a mechanic who was attending the rally. "What about human rights for Serbs? Muslims have all the rights and Serbs have none. We deserve the right to decide where we are going to live. We deserve self-determination."

"It's a ridiculous question," he continued. "Serbs have a right to live in a state, to choose for themselves. We want the rights given to Slovenia, to Croatia, even to Bosnia"--the former pieces of the old Yugoslav federation that seceded, one by one, most in war, from the rule of Belgrade, leaving only Serbia and Montenegro in Milosevic's rump state.

But, Slijepcevic conceded, a lot of people don't care as much anymore.

This demonstration was small, he said. Many Serbs have given up on their Bosnian brothers, he admitted. They believe the Western "propaganda" that says the Bosnian Serb leadership is full of war profiteers and corrupt opportunists.

Like many of Belgrade's men, Slijepcevic has no work. International sanctions block the importation of spare parts for the machines he used to fix, so he lives on only a portion of his former salary.

Still, he opposes Milosevic's plan to recognize Bosnia-Herzegovina and its Muslim-led government, even if that would mean relief from the sanctions imposed by the United Nations against the Belgrade government in 1992 for its role in fomenting the war in Bosnia.

"The government should act honestly," he said. "We must resist the pressure. The international sanctions cannot hurt us. We can live with sanctions."

Others disagree. While perhaps continuing to give lip service to the cause of nationalism, many simply want to get on with their lives. Weary of war, they want sanctions lifted and the country to begin what will certainly be a slow process of recovery.

It is that sentiment that Milosevic is counting on as he considers recognizing Bosnia, a move that would deal a devastating psychological blow to the Bosnian Serbs and outrage their most fervent supporters and the hard-core nationalists.

Milosevic, once the loudest voice of radical nationalism, has shifted his position as part of a rehabilitation that he hopes will improve his international standing. If nationalism and the politics of hatred paved his way to the national presidency five years ago, Milosevic evidently has calculated that negotiation and the search for peace are now the keys to holding on to power, analysts and diplomats say.

Where he once used newspapers and television stations that he controls to rally Serbs in the name of cultural unity at all costs, playing on their fears and agitating for war, he now uses the same tools to calm passions and promote peace.

Officially, at least, he has stopped supporting the Bosnian Serb war effort and has encouraged the Serbs, now that they have seized 70% of Bosnian territory, to accept a negotiated settlement.

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