Why US Bombs Failed to Topple Milosevic ; A Year after NATO Began Air Campaign, Iron Yugoslav Leader Continues to Smother Dissent

By Justin Brown, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Why US Bombs Failed to Topple Milosevic ; A Year after NATO Began Air Campaign, Iron Yugoslav Leader Continues to Smother Dissent


Justin Brown, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


It was supposed to be the winter of discontent for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

The Serbs were cold from a lack of heating oil, hungry from a meager harvest, and angry from losing Kosovo. It was, some US officials thought, the perfect time for an uprising, when the people of Belgrade would take to the streets in protest, overthrow the Balkans' most durable leader, and proclaim a new era of democracy in Yugoslavia.

How wrong they were.

A year later, on the anniversary marking the beginning of 78 days of NATO airstrikes, the Yugoslav president is as strong as he has been in years. His survival is a story of shrewdly marshaling international allies, blanketing his people with propaganda, and steadily suppressing dissent.

Defying the prognosticators, Mr. Milosevic's domestic rivals have crumbled and his people have been numbed to the point where most no longer care about politics, have strength for demonstrations, or believe in the Western concept of democracy.

Milosevic, it turns out, will probably outlast US President Bill Clinton, who was the driving force behind NATO's unprecedented intervention into a sovereign country.

"Ultimate removal of Milosevic is up to the Serbian people," NATO Secretary General George Robertson said recently - in contrast to the alliance's bravado from a year ago. "We don't know how the Serb people will get rid of him ... but in due course he will go."

How Milosevic survived is nothing new. Rather, he used tactics honed in three previous lost wars: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia. Kosovo would be his fourth.

The first factor he relied on was miscalculation by the West. The US-led international community underestimated his staying power and overestimated his opposition. Being an indicted war criminal never really hurt Milosevic - analysts say it just hardened his resolve and reinforced his bunker mentality.

Using bombs to advantage

According to Stojan Cerovic, a Serbian journalist working for the US Institute for Peace in Washington, Milosevic made a risky decision while his forces were attacking ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and NATO was threatening air strikes: He decided that bombing would allow him to justify a crackdown at home and build on an us-against- the-world mentality.

"He didn't see any risk in bombing," Cerovic says. "He accepted the idea of intervention." Furthermore, Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic, were convinced that other countries would become outraged at what they considered American hegemony, and that leaders outside the NATO power loop would rally around the Serbs - if not during the bombing then in the months following. To some extent, they were right: China and Russia fed Milosevic enough cash and oil to carry him through the hardest times.

A statement this week by Serbia's ruling Socialist party sounded a note of victory: "Support for Yugoslavia, its people, and leadership is growing worldwide. …

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