Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic looked tired to the gathered political leaders as he sat at the head of a table in the ornate White Palace, his official Belgrade residence.
"A few things are not logical, but the main thing is, we have no choice," he said in measured tones, according to a participant. "I personally think we should accept."
With those words late Thursday night, Milosevic informed Serbian politicians that he had agreed to submit to an American-European-Russian framework for peace. The plan called for a full withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and their replacement by a NATO-dominated peacekeeping force.
His words signaled not only the apparent end to the war, with its mass expulsions of ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces and the punishing bombardment of Yugoslavia by NATO jets, but also the beginning of an intense political struggle for the country's future.
As often in the past, Milosevic finds himself at the end of a disastrous path. Wars in the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia this decade have all ended badly for the Serb-led government in Belgrade. Now, Kosovo is to be occupied by foreigners whose boots Milosevic said would never leave a print inside Yugoslavia.
He has survived past setbacks, but never as grave as this. Not only are his forces about to retreat from a devastated Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in what remains of Yugoslavia, but they also will return to a country whose factories, bridges, airfields, roads, barracks, and on occasion, civilian neighborhoods have been bombed. Hundreds of civilians and a yet unknown number of soldiers and police have been killed.
It is not hard to find Serbs who think that the peace accord is a defeat for Yugoslavia and that Milosevic is finished. Yet, given the quirks of Balkan politics and Milosevic's ability to turn defeat into victory, his demise is far from certain. Much will depend on whether Yugoslavs accept Milosevic's line that the country's interests were protected and, if not, who is to blame.
The battle lines were drawn right away at Thursday night's dramatic meeting. Milosevic staked out a middle position: The country had no choice, but the outcome was favorable because Yugoslavia will continue to exercise at least symbolic sovereignty over Kosovo. The fact that the agreement envisaged a central role for the United Nations in overseeing the peace settlement was another key selling point for Milosevic.
"Yugoslavia is a founder of the United Nations, and we must respect its decision," he told his fellow politicians. "To reject the document means the destruction of our state and nation."
Milosevic was seconded by the representative of his own Socialist Party and by his wife, Mirjana Markovic, who heads the allied Yugoslav United Left (JUL) party. "This is not a surrender of the state but of a wrong policy," she said, to the surprise of some participants who had viewed her as more hawkish than her husband.
It was left to the Serbian Radical Party leader, Vojislav Seselj, to stake out the hard-line nationalist position. "The document means capitulation. It is a shameful document," he said.
Vuk Draskovic, head of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, affirmed his party's support for the accord. He pointed a finger at Seselj and flung the emotional word "capitulation" back at him. "This is the capitulation of your policy, of your dream of converting Serbia into a gulag separate from Europe," he said.
Now, the political maneuvering has begun. In some ways, Milosevic's position is reminiscent of the situation he faced in March 1997 following a street uprising against the rigging of election results in favor of the Socialists. After Milosevic agreed to reinstate the original results, many political analysts here and abroad predicted that he was finished. Over time, however, he gradually succeeded in clawing back the gains of the opposition.
In the past, Milosevic has succeeded in pitting his political rivals against each other and depicting himself as the indispensable man of the center who holds the key strings of power. It is a game at which he excels, and one he will continue to play as long as he is able. However much Draskovic and his supporters despise Milosevic, they still prefer him to Seselj, and vice versa.
"Milosevic established a kind of Bermuda triangle of Yugoslav politics," said Voja Zanetic, a political commentator and leader of anti-NATO protests during the 2 1/2-month Western bombing campaign. "If you try to pull him down, he is able to point to Seselj and say, `Look who will succeed me.' "
It will not be easy for Western-oriented politicians like Draskovic to capitalize on the latent discontent of the Serbian people. The NATO airstrikes have severely tarnished the image of the United States and other Western countries in the eyes of many Serbs. Serbs who are dissatisfied with Milosevic seem as likely to gravitate toward Seselj and the extreme nationalists as they do toward the pro-Western political parties.
With 83 seats in the 250-seat Serbian parliament, Seselj's Radical Party is the second strongest political force in Serbia, after the Socialist-JUL coalition, led by the Milosevics, which controls 105 seats. Draskovic's Movement for Serbian Renewal is the third-largest political group with 45 seats.
Seselj, who holds the post of Yugoslav deputy prime minister, has said that his party will leave the government in protest as soon as NATO troops move into Kosovo. Such a step would deprive the Socialists of a parliamentary majority unless they form a new coalition with Draskovic's Serbia Renewal Movement. Sensing that the tide of Serbian politics is shifting in his direction, Draskovic today made clear that he hopes to extract significant concessions out of Milosevic in exchange for his support.
Draskovic's conditions for bailing out Milosevic include new parliamentary elections in Serbia later this year (under the present timetable they are not scheduled until 2001) and political reconciliation with the pro-Western leadership of Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the two-republic Yugoslav federation. He is also demanding the abolition of stringent controls over the press, which were tightened when the NATO bombing began.
While Milosevic has considerable maneuvering room in the short term, his political position seems more precarious over the longer term. In the past, he has been able to present himself as the guarantor of peace in the Balkans and an indispensable negotiating partner for the West. This is no longer the case. His indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague means that Yugoslavia has little chance of receiving significant economic assistance from the West as long as Milosevic remains in power.
"Milosevic is in dire straits," said Pedrag Simic, a political scientist who advises Draskovic. "There will be no major upheavals over the summer. But when winter approaches and people realize that they are still without food and heat, then it will be a different matter."
Such sentiments are not limited to longtime rivals. Speaking privately, even some of his key political allies distanced themselves from him last week. They signaled an interest in preserving their own privileges in a post-Milosevic regime. One idea being floated is for Milosevic to fade into the role of a figurehead, either by creation of a special reconstruction commission or by increasing the powers of the federal prime minister.
NATO DAMAGE TO YUGOSLAVIA
Pentagon summary released yesterday, the 74th day of the NATO air war, following 32,700 sorties against 430 fixed targets and 475 tactical engagements against Serb forces:
Yugoslav army and police:
* More than one-quarter of the armored vehicles and almost 40 percent of the artillery and mortars deployed in Kosovo destroyed.
* More than half of the 3rd Army's infrastructure and most of its ammunition and fuel storage capacity destroyed.
* Distribution networks for all supplies, particularly fuel and ammunition, severely disrupted, especially in and around Kosovo.
* Nearly 80 percent of modern fighter aircraft and strategic surface-to-air missiles destroyed.
* Sustained air operations severely degraded by destruction of airfield maintenance and support facilities.
* Two presidential residences and headquarters of the Ministry of Defense, army, air force, air defense force, Socialist Party of Serbia and national security services damaged or destroyed.
* All national petroleum refinery capability destroyed.
* Nearly half of military reserve fuel storage, more than one-fifth of industrial fuel storage and more than half of joint military-civilian fuel storage damaged or destroyed.
* Serbian fuel imports hampered, with damage to facilities along the Danube.
Industry and transportation:
* Aircraft repair and sustainability degraded by about 70 percent.
* Ammunition production capacity reduced by nearly two-thirds.
* Half of Serbia's explosives/propellant infrastructure damaged.
* More than one-third of nationwide ground equipment production and sustainment capabilities damaged or destroyed.
* Power disruptions continue throughout major urban areas.
* All rail lines and half of the primary roads into Kosovo unusable.