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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Charges Not Expected to Weaken Milosevic, Attacks on Ethnic Albanians

Balkans: With leader branded a war criminal, many Serbs fear peace is more remote than ever.

May 28, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — News of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's indictment by an international criminal tribunal for atrocities committed by his forces in Kosovo hit like a bombshell here Thursday.

But, like the last two months of airstrikes against Yugoslavia, the indictment is unlikely--at least in the short term--to undermine his conduct of the war in Kosovo or his rule of a country under siege by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The charges against Milosevic and four senior aides, including murder and mass deportations, were not mentioned in censored Serbian television reports denouncing the indictment. Nor were they a subject of much discussion among a public that has mostly ignored the brutality of the 15-month-old crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia--the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.

Instead, as word of the indictment spread through this Serbian and Yugoslav capital, the most disturbing message it carried to Serbs was that, with their president now officially branded a war criminal, any negotiated end to NATO's punishing bombardment seemed more remote than ever.

That fear was reinforced as Russian peace envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin postponed a scheduled visit to Belgrade until today and NATO missiles again hit electric power facilities after dark, blacking out the city and much of Serbia for the third time in less than a week.

"I think now all negotiations will stop," said Branka Petricevic, 60, who manages a downtown manicure salon. "That court has lowered a noose over our hopes for peace and is slowly tightening it."

As for the charges against her president, she echoed the widely held view here that the court in The Hague was manipulated by NATO to justify continued bombing. "I cannot say that our Milosevic is good," she added. "But [NATO's] 'Milosevics' are much worse."

Such remarks indicate that the Yugoslav leader continues to draw strength from the bombing assault, despite claims by NATO and Clinton administration officials that it is weakening him.

Opposition leaders in Belgrade say the bombing has failed to provoke more than scattered popular resistance to the regime, which has imposed censorship and other wartime curbs on their activities. Outrage against NATO is widespread, and open dissent is seen as comforting the enemy.

Just as they protested NATO's bombing from the start, foes of Milosevic from all parties closed ranks with his supporters Thursday in criticizing the indictment--or at least its timing--as a fresh obstacle to peace.

"The first priority must be to end the war," Zoran Djindjic, president of the main opposition Democratic Party, said from self-exile in Montenegro, Serbia's relatively freer sister republic in the Yugoslav federation. "The second phase would be to find out who is responsible. Now it will be difficult to bring the war to an end."

NATO is bombing Yugoslavia to halt a brutal crackdown by Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces who have driven more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo during a fight with the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army. Thousands of civilians have been executed, tortured or raped, according to reports from refugees, humanitarian aid workers and independent journalists.

While many Serbs fault Milosevic for contributing to the conflict, few hold him exclusively responsible. Human rights activists in Belgrade say the tribunal's unprecedented indictment of a sitting president is unlikely to change that view.

Before the NATO bombing, Serb-run media, under government pressure, all but ignored Serbian atrocities in Kosovo. Since the air war began, it has portrayed the refugee exodus as the result of guerrilla activity or the bombs themselves.

Even Serbs who watch satellite TV broadcasts from the West--there are several hundred thousand such viewers in a country of 10 million people--tend to dismiss or minimize the horrid reports from Kosovo.

"Serbs know that what they hear here is propaganda," said Vojin Dimitrijevic, director of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights. "But they think that whatever they hear from another source abroad is also propaganda. It's a legacy of communism. They simply don't believe there's a single independent source of information anywhere."

Dimitrijevic, an early supporter of the tribunal as it investigated war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, said the Netherlands-based court discredited itself by going after far more Bosnian Serb suspects than Bosnian Croats and Muslims. The Milosevic government, which never recognized the court's jurisdiction, has made much of the alleged bias.

"The tribunal has been so systematically destroyed by propaganda here that few Serbs will take these charges [against Milosevic] seriously," he said. "The idea of normal administration of justice is foreign to most people in the Balkans. They believe that, if you're selected to be a victim, you'll be a victim."

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