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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Why he blinked

Milosevic may have capitulated, but there is little reason for exultation among the alliance

By Johanna McGeary/TIME

TIME magazine

If personal survival is your war aim, then surrender is always an option. We will never know exactly when the decision took root in the contrarian lobes of Slobodan Milosevic's brain. But three weeks ago, his body language changed. For weeks, whenever he received Russian special envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Serbian leader would loll arrogantly back in his seat and hold forth, filling the room with his self-serving discourse. Since launching a diplomatic shuttle on April 14, Chernomyrdin had spent dozens of fruitless hours with Milosevic, most of them listening. Then on May 19, the Russian detected a subtle shift. During a seven-hour chat, Milosevic kept leaning forward, paying attention, listening intently, as if hoping to hear something he could latch on to.

Last Thursday he evidently did. Serbia's truculent, unpredictable leader startled the world by abruptly accepting all of NATO's demands, almost the exact terms he had rebuffed on March 23 when he set off the air war. Now he had decided to stop it. It took him just over six hours of businesslike question-and-answer with the emissaries to make up his mind and formally capitulate.

Such a relief. In a test of wills in which one side had all the weapons but both underestimated the other's staying power, Milosevic cracked first. The chilling spectacle of NATO slamming 20,000 bombs and missiles into Yugoslavia can come to a merciful end. Bill Clinton proves--again--to be the luckiest President alive. At nearly the exact moment that Clinton gathered the Joint Chiefs to confront the unpalatable implications of a ground war to salvage the stalemated air campaign, Milosevic handed him victory.

Victory? The word is technically correct. The Serbs will be out of Kosovo, NATO in. The alliance can be proud it hung together, stuck to its demands and lost not a single soldier in combat--an amazing, unprecedented zero. The West stood up against the obscene barbarism of "ethnic cleansing," drawing moral lines for the world. Serbia's war machine has been mutilated. Air power vindicated itself.

But it would be wrong to exult. NATO miscalculated when it entered the war and waged it with self-imposed limits. The armed confrontation failed in its primary aim. Air strikes were undertaken to save Kosovo's Albanians from Serbian wrath, but the offensive that NATO launched gave Milosevic the opening to rampage through the province. It took 72 days of death and destruction to arrive back where the combatants had started: at the original precarious prescription for safeguarding the Kosovars. Except that now 855,000 of them have been expelled from their wasted homeland, thousands have died, and untold others have been subjected to atrocious crimes. No one can say how many will dare to go back. If they don't, Milosevic will have succeeded in his primary goal of cleansing as many Albanians from his nation as he could.

The Serbian people have paid dearly in lost lives, lost jobs, lost hope, yet the leader responsible still rules Yugoslavia, no less prone to stir up trouble--though surely less able--than he ever was. The West has acquired an unstable Kosovo protectorate that will require intensive military and political care for years to come, and an immense bill, in the billions of dollars, to reconstruct the ravaged economies of Europe's Balkan quarter. The truism is the same for this as for every war: the peace is going to be harder to win.

First come the inherent perils of doing deals with Milosevic. The very speed of his capitulation made everyone suspect a trick. From Washington to Brussels, officials urged caution, but the Pentagon privately believed the agreement was "the real McCoy." Unwilling to be caught wrong, Washington insisted the bombing would not actually stop until the Serbs have satisfied NATO they are carrying out the stringent terms for withdrawal of 40,000-odd troops from Kosovo. NATO wants verifiable deeds, not seductive words from a leader who has cheated on virtually every agreement he has ever made. "We are looking for implementation, implementation, implementation," said State Department spokesman James Rubin. Belgrade passed a symbolic test Thursday night when General Dragoljub Ojdanic, the Yugoslav army chief of staff, personally called NATO commander General Wesley Clark to "request" that alliance officers meet Serbian officers to discuss cease-fire mechanics.

More telling will be their faithfulness in following through. NATO brass convened over the weekend with their Yugoslav counterparts on the Macedonian border to map out a detailed end to the hostilities and tell the Serbs to get cracking, brooking neither prolonged negotiation nor trumped-up delay. Once that meeting concludes satisfactorily, Belgrade has 48 hours to pull air-defense missile batteries back 15 miles inside Serbia, and seven days to roll all its tanks and troops home. NATO reconnaissance planes will be watching vigilantly to determine whether the withdrawal is "serious, complete, irreversible," said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea. "The dust on the tracks of those Serbian forces moving out will be the test of whether we can trust Milosevic." If Belgrade cooperates, a bombing halt was possible as early as Sunday. If the Serbs hesitate or renege, the bombing will go on with renewed vigor.

NATO too will have to accelerate smartly to march its 50,000 peacekeepers into Kosovo right behind the departing Serbs--perhaps as early as Tuesday. A sizable British force is on hand in Macedonia, and the leading edge of the American contingent--2,000 Marines--is nearby in the Adriatic, but it could take a month for all 7,000 G.I.s to deploy. The peacekeepers need to move fast to prevent the armed and independence-minded troops of the Kosovo Liberation Army from swarming into the vacuum. Milosevic has shuffled off the problem of "demilitarizing" the rebels to NATO, and it won't be easy. "It is our expectation," insisted Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that the K.L.A. will cooperate and accept an agreement that promises self-rule but does not give them independence or even the future referendum promised at Rambouillet. Kosovar cooperation was mistakenly taken for granted in those negotiations too.

The war's brutalities make it inconceivable for many Albanian refugees to accept even the most nominal Serbian sovereignty. "It will be impossible for us to live together," says Rifat Veseli, a young Kosovar arguing with his friends in tent C-71 at Macedonia's Stenkovec camp. "How can Western leaders expect me to wake up and say good day to a Serb?" While K.L.A. officials are paying lip service to the deal, the likelihood of patching together a political structure for real cohabitation is dim.

NATO has plenty more devilish details to iron out if the settlement plan is to work. The two-page, 10-point agreement left key issues unresolved, including sensitive questions of command. For weeks Moscow not only insisted on participating in the peace force but tried to place its troops in charge of Kosovo's northern quadrant, where many Serbian holy sites lie. Washington refused for fear that would effectively partition the province. Now the diplomats are wrangling over just what role the Russian troops will play and who will command them. Russia's proud military men oppose the settlement, making it harder for Moscow's troops to be tucked comfortably under NATO's "unified" command.

The ambiguities over Kosovo's political structures are especially ripe for the sort of chiseling Milosevic does so well. But for the moment, the time had come to cut his losses. It had been easy to ride out the first 30 days of air strikes, when bad weather and alliance timidity limited the damage Serbia suffered. But "he was feeling the pain" in the second month, says a U.S. intelligence officer, as NATO racked up 350 attack sorties every 24 hours. Bombs and missiles had blitzed much of Serbia's heavy industry, energy sector and transport network. Citizen morale crumbled under water shortages and power outages as NATO hammered the country's electric grid. Protests broke out in the smashed industrial cities of the south.

U.S. intelligence spotted Serbian soldiers in Kosovo steadily slipping away from their posts. A K.L.A. offensive lured Serbian tanks out of their hiding places, massing them into cannon fodder for allied warplanes. Even the gruesome pictures of Serbian civilians mauled by errant bombs failed to crack NATO determination. Now Clinton was holding serious discussions about ground troops, a possibility Milosevic thought had been safely discarded. Perhaps most critical of all, the Hague war-crimes tribunal finally indicted him on May 27, placing his very life in jeopardy if he ever slipped from power. "He recognized he wouldn't prevail," says a U.S. official, and began to put out peace feelers.

The denouement was accelerated by inspired diplomacy that paired the sympathetic Russian Chernomyrdin with the neutral Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari. Chernomyrdin had had no luck penetrating the complex, impulsive, stubborn character of the Serbian leader. But he concluded that you could, eventually, do a deal with Milosevic if you could help him save face. Early in May, at breakfast with Vice President Al Gore and Albright, Chernomyrdin suggested he needed a negotiating partner with stature in Europe but no connections to NATO. "If I have someone from the West with me, I have a better chance of getting this done," he said. "Mother Boss," as the Russian calls Albright, immediately thought of the solid, no-nonsense Ahtisaari. Not only did he have years of experience in international negotiation and the cachet of Finland's assuming the presidency of the European Union, but Washington was sure he would not sell out the alliance's conditions.

Ahtisaari was a welcome addition to the team soon nicknamed "hammer and anvil" in State Department circles. Chernomyrdin didn't much cotton to his uncompromising American interlocutors, and he shared the general Russian suspicion that NATO leaders, particularly Clinton, were driven less by concern for Kosovars than by the desire to show the rest of the world who is boss. Washington worried that Chernomyrdin was soft-pedaling NATO's demands in Belgrade, and wasn't sure he relayed back an accurate reading of Milosevic's intentions.

The toughest negotiations over the peace plan took place between the U.S. and Russia, quarreling over ways to bring the war to an end. But Milosevic's change in body language encouraged Chernomyrdin to plan another trip to Belgrade last week, even with no hope of a bombing pause. Washington wanted Ahtisaari to go along, figuring he could clearly convey NATO's demands, while the Russian followed his own script, fudging on two that Moscow opposed: all Serbian forces must be withdrawn and NATO had to form the core of the peacekeeping force.

By Monday, Chernomyrdin surprised the State Department. Tired of having each plan rejected by Milosevic or Clinton, he wanted to go to Belgrade with a final take-it-or-leave-it document, every word of which he and Ahtisaari would agree on. The Russian shocked Washington again in the first hour of talks Tuesday with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Chernomyrdin announced Moscow acceded to the removal of all Serbian troops. Then he proposed a style change: instead of referring generally to NATO's demands, the document should spell out everything in full, including footnotes specifying the mechanics of withdrawal.

Deciding on these kinds of details took hours. Talbott, Chernomyrdin and Ahtisaari haggled on through the night over two other issues--how fast the Serbs had to leave and how central NATO would be to the peacekeeping force. Washington held out for a swift timetable, and "Strobe just hammered to make sure the document had NATO at the core," says a senior U.S. official. When the exhausted diplomats reconvened Wednesday morning, Ahtisaari threatened to pull out if there was no agreement, and Chernomyrdin conceded. Now Moscow had sided with NATO, leaving Milosevic isolated.

Compared with that marathon, the talks in Belgrade were swift and matter-of-fact. On Wednesday night the envoys and Milosevic talked for 4 1/2 hours. Chernomyrdin never veered as he read from the prepared script. Ahtisaari went over it in detail, explaining why each demand was not negotiable. "Can we make improvements in the text?" Milosevic asked. "Absolutely not," Ahtisaari shot back. This was NATO's best offer, and not a comma could be changed. Hoping to soften the Finn, Milosevic invited him to dinner. "Let's not have dinner," answered Ahtisaari. Instead, the Serbian leader should go back to his advisers and consult them on accepting NATO's ultimatum.

In hindsight, Serbia's calculating boss had probably already made up his mind to take the next offer. By 9:30 p.m. he summoned his rubber-stamp parliament to a special session Thursday morning to provide some political cover for his capitulation. Lawmakers approved the deal overwhelmingly the next day.

Milosevic has emerged with his skin intact, as well as his uncanny knack for turning defeat into personal victory. NATO, he felt, had flinched at the ground war needed to drive him from power. He could brag how his "little nation" had stood up to the world's most powerful military alliance and nurse Serbian victimhood.

Yet even if there is no real political opposition to challenge him now, he cannot rest easy. He will try to put a worth-it-all face on defeat by claiming this peace agreement is more favorable than the Rambouillet plan, since it gives Serbia uncontested sovereignty over Kosovo. But with no troops there to enforce it, his legal ownership is a sham. And he was forced to swallow the humiliation of admitting foreign soldiers onto Yugoslav soil. The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party voted against a deal it denounced as a total sellout. Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj, idol of the hard-liners, could quit the government. Ultimately, Milosevic will have to deal with the dawning realization among his suffering citizenry that after he let Serbia be ruined, he handed over Kosovo. "He betrayed us with war," said Croatian Serb Dragan Miljanic, 62, idling in a Belgrade street. "Milosevic only cares for his own skin."

This war has burned nearly everyone it touched. Washington's uneasy relations with China and Russia have been poisoned. Beijing will take a long while to get over the insult of errant bombs dropping on its Belgrade embassy, and lingering resentment could hamper the peace plan as it moves into the U.N. Security Council. Washington feels heartened that it managed to draw an angry Russia back to NATO's side. Moscow, says a senior French official, "made a difficult and courageous choice" in choosing pragmatic cooperation with the West over emotional solidarity with Serbia. Though Chernomyrdin is reviled at home for kowtowing to the West, Russian diplomacy gained considerable credibility in allied capitals, where officials hope the process will strengthen wavering ties. But there is still a lot of fence mending to be done. Russians in the policy elite and on the street now regard the alliance as a sinister force bent on aggression: "Who is next after Yugoslavia?" is not just a rhetorical question.

The West can claim no victory worth the name until the Kosovars go home. In Bosnia, despite four years of NATO policing, the vast majority of Muslim refugees have not returned. If even a portion of exiled Kosovars, some scattered from New Jersey to Australia, refuse to go back, Milosevic again gets away with the evil practice of ethnic cleansing. The fighting may stop, but that is insufficient to make ethnic Albanians feel secure as long as he reigns in Belgrade. Kosovo is a wasteland where many who return will find nothing but dead relatives, mass graves, destroyed homes, slaughtered livestock, poisoned wells and a hard life. The West has promised billions to reconstruct the province, most of it put up by Europe. "The costs will be staggering," says a senior Washington official. "Whatever estimate there is now, triple that." But before the exiles can even think of leaving their camps, the alliance needs to build shelters for millions and prepare to feed the population for at least a year.

The West cannot ignore the fact that ordinary Serbs are collateral victims too. NATO estimates its bombs killed 5,000 and wounded an additional 10,000. Serbia lies in rubble, about 500,000 have lost their jobs, and wages have been officially reduced to 1,000 dinars ($60) a month. There are no sources of revenue to pay out pensions or army salaries. To repair shattered rail lines, bombed-out roads and sunken bridges alone will cost about $1 billion. The country's four largest industrial sites are totally destroyed; nine more are severely damaged. Two oil refineries went up in black acrid smoke, along with most of the fuel-storage facilities, leaving Serbia having to import high-priced refined fuel. Without foreign cash, says Belgrade economist Mladjan Dinkic, a return to pre-Milosevic prosperity would take 41 years.

While an indicted war criminal presides in Belgrade, Serbs can expect no money from international investment or mini-Marshall plans. "There is no question of dealing with Milosevic," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "There is no place for Serbia in the true family of nations while he remains in office."

As the generals buckled down to finetune the peace plan, the world kept its fingers crossed that the bombs would soon stop falling. But in the capitals of the NATO alliance, two words haunt political leaders: Saddam Hussein. Just like the war in the Persian Gulf, this one has come to a halt but not a conclusion. As long as Slobodan Milosevic hangs on to power, there will be no permanent peace for the Balkans.

--Reported by Jay Branegan, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington, Dejan Anastasijevic/Vienna, James L. Graff/ Cologne, Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow and Gillian Sandford/Belgrade


Cover Date: June 14, 1999

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