- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2000

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia Six months to the week after NATO troops marched triumphantly into Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic, Europe's first leader ever to be indicted for war crimes, shows no signs of going away.
Chinese cash, Russian gas and rumored Iraqi oil have given the Yugoslav president a new lease on life one that could save him from the wrath of his war-weary people.
As the first snows swept through Belgrade, turning the banks of the Sava River white, it emerged that Beijing had thrown Mr. Milosevic a lifeline in the form of a $300 million gift.
The munificence procured in part by Mr. Milosevic's wife, whose Marxist party has close ties with Beijing will help reconstruct facilities ravaged by NATO's air war earlier this year and re-energize a sagging economy.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Milosevic, whose ability to avoid the public eye has earned him the title among Serbs of the "invisible man," is now mustering what few anti-American, anti-Western friends he can.
Last month, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein extended a helping hand, dispatching officials to Belgrade to discuss the possibility of exporting oil. And earlier last fall, the Serbian regime received a badly needed boost from Russia with a gas deal that has helped dampen disquiet by keeping people warm.
Dissidents who had staked their hopes on the opposition ousting the pariah president before the year's end have openly begun to despair.
"This man has destroyed our country, he has turned it into another Albania, but he is not going to fall tomorrow," says Vuk Obradovic, the former soldier who now heads the opposition Socialist Democratic Party. "We are shrinking, becoming more isolated by the day, but Milosevic still has absolute control over the media, police and army the key pillars of power."
"This is no ordinary tyranny. It's very subtle," says a senior Western envoy. "People have access to the foreign press and they can read Croatian papers and publicly they can, and do, speak their minds."
But the battle to dislodge him stops there. Mr. Milosevic may be Yugoslavia's most unpopular politician opinion polls show 32 percent of the population dislike him intensely. Yet, set against an opposition that is as divided as it is self-seeking, he is paradoxically also the most popular.
As the lack of interest in ongoing street protests has so amply proved, no one else has been able to capitalize on his failings. And no one else can pull the 15 percent of personal support that he does.
"Now the opposition is so feeble, so disunited, so power-hungry and pathetic, it can't do anything," says screenwriter Milan Petrovic. "It's true there's fear. This time around, the police have beaten people, [one opposition editor was killed] and there is the worry of civil war."
Despite growing desperation and despair half of Serbia lives beneath the poverty level few in Belgrade come near to thinking that Mr. Milosevic is about to be toppled anytime soon.
Four lost wars may have ensured that under Mr. Milosevic, Yugoslavia is but a shadow of its former self. Mention Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia or Macedonia the lost lands and Belgraders, mixing melancholy with nostalgia, anger with pain, will often break into a panegyric of Tito's Yugoslavia pre-shrinkage, pre-sanctions, pre-patrols.
Belgrade has been rife with rumors of Mr. Milosevic's ill health. In the cafes and bars, there's talk of his heart problem.
But six months after NATO troops entered Kosovo, Mr. Milosevic is said to be in "healthy spirit and healthy mind" by the few foreign officials who have had contact with him. And, although truncated, the country is still his, so much so that he now seems bent on tightening his grip on power, even in independent-minded Montenegro.
"Revolutions are usually bloody and people don't want that," says Stefan Nitsic, a political commentator. "There's no expectation that change would be for the better. Most of us are disappointed, disillusioned and desperately tired from sanctions that have put us all, whether guilty or not, in a giant prison. And we can't forget that after Dayton [where the 1995 Bosnian peace accord was brokered], Milosevic was the darling of the West."
To make matters worse, dissidents say, Serbia is cursed by rich, fertile land. "There's not going to be starvation here, there's just going to be shortages," says Mr. Obradovic. "People don't tend to revolt on full stomachs. But that doesn't mean winter is going to be without its problems. Every single day, we will have problems. How he reacts is the key."
Mr. Milosevic is increasing pressure on dissidents. The crackdown on the free press has intensified dramatically in recent weeks as the regime has pushed ahead with its campaign to decontaminate the media of "NATO propagandists" with crippling fines.
Two newspapers and the popular opposition-run Studio B TV channel were fined $84,000 huge penalties that are meant to see them fold.
For some, the renewed repression has given hope that in spite of Mr. Milosevic's newfound foreign support, his confidence may at long last be cracking.
"All these measures are part of his survival strategy, but we know it's the beginning of the end," said Mr. Obradovic. "Already businessmen and politicians, the Mafia who have got rich around him, want to jump ship. Will he go peacefully or violently? That is the question."
But others ask: Will he go at all?

Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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