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Milosevic Tells Country War Was A ‘Great Achievement’

By Richard Boudreaux
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- BELGRADE, Yugoslavia

Having lost a disastrous war to keep NATO forces out of Kosovo, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is staking his political survival on efforts to keep the province’s Serb minority from fleeing in panic and to claw his way back into favor with the West.

As his troops began withdrawing in defeat from a place Serbs call their cultural heartland and as the Western alliance halted 11 weeks of bombing, Milosevic made an Orwellian appearance on national television Thursday to declare his war effort “a great achievement.”

His explanation for picking this fight -- one that cost an estimated 2,000 civilian lives, drove hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in a bloody purge and wrecked Yugoslavia’s economy -- went like this:

Before the bombing, the West was demanding a deal that would have given Kosovo’s Albanian majority a large measure of self-rule and a chance to take a nonbinding vote on independence from Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, within three years. The pact he accepted doesn’t mention a vote.

“We never gave up Kosovo,” Milosevic proclaimed in his only televised speech on the conflict, seeking to head off debate over who lost the place. “The political process can involve only the autonomy of Kosovo, nothing else. ... Today our sovereignty is guaranteed.”

And what of the nearly 50,000 NATO forces now rolling into Kosovo as homecoming escorts for the Albanians he expelled en masse? Didn’t the Yugoslav leader swear that foreign boots would never tread there?

“The forces that come to Kosovo will serve peace, regardless from which countries they come,” Milosevic said in a conciliatory signal to his enemies. The important thing for Yugoslavia, he explained, is that the NATO-led peacekeeping force has a formal U.N. mandate -- a face-saving stamp of international legitimacy to Serb eyes.

Even as many Serbs welcomed the peace with champagne, car horns, noisy midnight rallies and tracer bullets fired skyward, it was hard to find anyone in Belgrade who saw these concessions as anything but a cover for Serbia’s humiliation after 78 days of pointless sacrifice in an unequal fight.

“It’s the same scenario we have seen before,” said Zoran Todorovic, a 45-year-old pharmacist. “Milosevic always presents his defeats as victories.”

Milosevic rose to power in 1987, first as the leader of Serbia and then of the Yugoslav federation, by stirring ethnic hatred over Kosovo. His strategy led to three wars that tore the federation apart, starting with Slovenia’s independence, then Croatia’s and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s. The violence came home to Serbia last year when Albanian guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army tried to win independence by force.

Because those previous wars uprooted minority Serbs by the hundreds of thousands, it is easy to imagine a mass exodus of Serbs from Kosovo as Milosevic’s troops leave and the persecuted Albanians come home. Serbs made up one-tenth of Kosovo’s prewar population of 2 million.

Fearing that such an exodus would destabilize Serbia and threaten his hold on power, Milosevic and his advisers are trying to persuade Kosovo’s Serbs to trust the foreign peacekeepers and stay put.