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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Yugoslavia's U.N. Envoy Rises to Nation's Defense

Diplomacy: Vladislav Jovanovic describes his people as 'good, humane, very cosmopolitan.'

April 10, 1999|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — He may be the loneliest man in New York City.

Vladislav Jovanovic, the Yugoslav ambassador to the United Nations, sits behind tightly drawn shades that block out the spring sunshine from his offices, located in a majestic but threadbare mansion on Fifth Avenue. Car alarms blare and sirens sound from the street below.

"We must do something about these," he said, gesturing apologetically at the massive frayed wall tapestries lining the curving stairway in the main hall. "But there is no money for anything like this now."

Jovanovic is in the unique position in the U.S. of serving as apologist and advocate for a foreign policy that has been harshly condemned--likened to the atrocities of Stalin and Hitler. In an interview with The Times this week, Jovanovic, courtly in manner and speech, insisted that the NATO bombings and the expulsion of half a million people in the past two weeks are all "a terrible mistake" between friends.

"We are not hostile to the American people," Jovanovic said. "We are good, humane, very cosmopolitan people." Describing the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, he said, "Belgrade is a cosmopolitan city still, even now."

The refugees who streamed out of Kosovo by tractor, boxcar and on foot were not expelled, he insisted--they were "very scared of war, and they panic." He said many Kosovo Serbs had also panicked and fled to central Yugoslavia from the southern province.

"We have an equal approach to all our citizens; we equally respect our [ethnic] Albanian citizens as we treat any of our other citizens. We invite them to stay in their homes, not to leave, and to share in the fate of Yugoslavia along with their fellow Kosovo citizens," he said.

Any rapes, beatings or killings, any orders given by masked men or soldiers, are not by Serbian soldiers or police, he said. They are by "individuals with no authority from the Yugoslav state. During wartime, the soil is there for individuals to do nasty things, on all sides."

He sits a little straighter when asked about Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Jovanovic acknowledges that his boss is "a born political animal" but says "it is a mistake to make one individual responsible for the troubles of the Balkans."

And to compare Milosevic to Hitler, to use terms like "ethnic cleansing" and genocide, "is a pile of nonsense," Jovanovic insisted.

Jovanovic, 66, is a childhood survivor of Nazi occupation and American bombings of his home city, an industrial town on the Danube near Belgrade. At age 9, after American bombs accidentally hit his home, he said, he spent several days separated from his family without food or water.

Like many other Serbs, the ambassador is keenly aware of bloody Balkan history, a history he said U.S. military leaders would do well to study. He recalls proudly that Hitler, frustrated by the tenacity of Serbian soldiers, issued a unique order. For every German soldier killed, 100 Serbian civilians would be killed. Still, the Serbs never gave up their guerrilla campaign against the Germans.

"You can destroy our country totally, but you will never [subdue] us," he said. "Serbia is not a satellite country. . . . Kosovo cannot be cut off from Yugoslavia, just as Southern California or Texas or Kansas cannot be cut from the U.S."

He offered another geography lesson, Serbian-style.

"The main river, the Danube, is the main road connecting Europe to Asia, and it is in our country," he said. "This is why everybody wants to invade us. We have never been the aggressor against any other country."

The ambassador, whose wife and 14-year-old son are with him in New York, seemed genuinely worried about the possibility of NATO ground troops coming into Yugoslavia.

"Disaster for all sides," he said. "Blood bath, certainly. This would be Europe's Vietnam. . . . There would be an international brigade . . . Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks. One thing is certain, that in that case, the war will not be limited to Yugoslavia and Kosovo." He touched on the failed peace negotiations, charging that the Contact Group--the six Western nations that worked on the Balkans crisis--had inexplicably sided with the Kosovo Liberation Army even though ethnic Albanians and Serbs alike had attacked each other before the bombing began. Yugoslav negotiators made a genuine effort to reach a peaceful settlement in Paris and Rambouillet, France, he said.

He dodged the question of allowing NATO monitors in Kosovo, but in polite tones, he insisted, "We cannot allow foreign aggressors, soldiers, to occupy our soil. . . . They want to degrade, diminish and annihilate us."

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