12 FEBRUARY 2000, Page 14


The Serb leader has tricked his people into believing they are victims, says Boris Johnson

Belgrade OK, so they bumped off one member of the Milosevic government. But what the hell about the rest of them? I ask the win- dow-shoppers of Knes Mihailova; I ask the Serb refugees, the leather-jacketed taxi drivers and the ingot-jewelled business- women. I ask the question until I am tired of hearing it. Come on, guys. We teed it up for you. We bombed the stuffing out of Serbia. We forced Milosevic to pull his troops out of Kosovo.

So why in the name of holy tarnation haven't you rid yourselves of the tyrant? In August last year, after the bombing was over, a US state department high-up called Bob Gelbert fixed a crisis meeting with the so-called Serb opposition. He painted a picture of how he saw things going.

I'm thinking Bucharest 1989, he said. I'm thinking Slobo and Mira lying in the dust outside the palace at Dedinje. So, how about it, fellers? The opposition sucked their teeth; or perhaps tabled a proposal to discuss teeth-sucking at the next conclave of their dozen groupuscules. `The West misread the situation after the war,' says Predrag Simic, adviser to the main opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic. We aren't into the idea of a revolution, he explains. Civil war has a bad reputation in Yugoslavia, not least since it killed more Serbs than the Nazis. The Americans were proposing a bloodbath, he protests.

And yet the problem is not simply fear of Milosevic and his troops. The awful truth is that, as one diplomat puts it, 'there isn't any fire out there on the streets'. We have to admit we were wrong, we who predicted that Slobo would not survive the winter. The winter was bad, but they muddled through. They had a flu epidemic. But who didn't?

Every night the Serbs watch the same formula on the state television news. The noble patriotic government is rebuilding Serbia. And the cowardly opposition is `I've given up on your father since he joined the Salivation Army.' conspiring with Nato and those who would do us down. Poor old Vuk Draskovic still has his arm in a sling after a gravel truck mysteriously drove into his convoy, killing five supporters. Worse still, the Rasputin lookalike was filmed kissing the hand of Madeleine Albright, an event broadcast by the state media with all the cruelty and regularity of John Redwood trying to sing the Welsh national anthem.

Yes, the dinar has slumped in value, from six to the DM to 22; and Slobo has been driven to flogging off government buildings comprising some novel Nato- assisted ventilation systems. But he has also decided to let the black market rip, and people are enriching themselves. Down the streets you see rows of vendors with big, plastic jerrycans full of 'benzin' or `clizel', like weird urine samples. Whatever the Serbs are putting in their combustion engines, it is bad stuff, and the air is full of particulates seeding themselves in the pores of the population, making, over time, for that classic commie warty look. But at least they have fuel, if brazenly smuggled from Republika Srpska; and as the Serb authorities point out, there are 130 countries which do not have sanctions against them.

They have even restarted the much- bombed Zastava car factory in Kragujevac; though they have decided to convert it to making tobacco, which is certainly a more Popular product than the Yugo Florid, a truly terrible model which the Pentagon has done well to keep off the roads. Some- how or other Slobo is being allowed to portray himself as a kind of FDR, printing money with genial Keynesian expansive- ness, while the opposition dickers around and tells Western visitors that street protests would be counterproductive. It is not inconceivable that Slobo might actually win the forthcoming local elections and take control of Belgrade, and with it the independent B2 TV station.

Few people seem to realise that Vuk Draskovic and co. already run large chunks of the country, and they don't seem to know what the Vuk they are doing. In so far as the pipes burst over the last few `We find the fur hat offensive, 0 Mighty Khan.'

months in the Titoist blocks, the old crones have tended to blame the city gov- ernment — Draskovic — and not Milose- vic. The hot story in Belgrade just now is the uselessness of the buses, ever since the multicoloured private ones tried to put their fares up, for which everyone blames Vuk, not Slobo, because — and here is another distressing truth — Slobo is not a proper tyrant. Yes, he is a bully and he jams the nightly B2 broadcasts. Yes, there are beatings, and these curious shootings. But no one has the slightest fear of pub- licly heaping derision on his name.

There are books for sale on street cor- ners saying what a complete berk he is. He allows all kinds of opposition newspapers and parties to be funded by George Soros's Open Society, or the EU. These are not the actions of a Stalin. He is not hated in the way that Ceausescu was, and for that reason there is not the rage to expel him. Instead, too many Serbs have fallen for his line. Too many believe that they are victims. And who helped him with his spell? We did, of course.

Of all the reasons why Milosevic is still there, you can't rule out Western incompe- tence. You can find Western diplomats in Belgrade who were utterly bewildered by the war. They could not believe it when they were sent the texts of Rambouillet, almost exactly a year ago, and read the annex about allowing Western troops all over Serbia. They warned that bombing would lead to an immediate expulsion of the Kosovar Albanians. 'It was predictable and predicted,' said one Western source. 'I know a lot of reporting on both the British and the American sides that warned against it.' Such advice was completely ignored by Madeleine Albright and Robin Cook. Diplomats in Belgrade could not believe it when the monitors were with- drawn. Surely, they said, the province should have been flooded with monitors?

Western diplomats in Belgrade never believed that Slobo would cave in after a few bombs, as Madeleine Albright seemed to think. They were ignored. Some now believe that we in fact set out to pick a fight with Milosevic over Kosovo; that we wanted to use the crisis to discredit him and push him out. That may be too cyni- cal. Or it may be ascribing too much ratio- cination to Madeleine 'not at' Albright. Whatever the plan was (and it seems pret- ty inscrutable) it has not worked. In attack- ing Milosevic we were attacking Serbia.

It was no use going to the Serbs after- wards, like Bob Gelbert of the state department, and asking them to revolt against the man who was defending their homeland. The Serb opposition may be an opposition, but it is, above all, Serb. Vuk Draskovic, after all, was one of the first to recruit paramilitaries during the war in Croatia. And do the Serbs see anything now, in any media, to persuade them of the wisdom of the Nato invasion? An American soldier is accused of raping an under-age Albanian; the ethnic war goes on, with murders on either side every day; the KLA is involved in drug-running and prostitution. As one Western source says, `You could not exactly claim that things are better now in Kosovo than they were before.'

Milosevic can even blame the West for the rise in gangsterism. It's all because of sanctions, he says, and his people dimly believe him. It's all our fault, apparently, that his son, Marko, controls the duty-free shops and the market for Paloma Picasso perfume, and all at the age of 26.

Perhaps Milosevic will indeed go before the year is out He is certainly not loved, and by many he is despised. But I wouldn't count on it — especially if the West has any hand in the matter.