The rest of the world may think that Yugoslavia has just suffered a major defeat in its conflict with NATO over Kosovo, but President Slobodan Milosevic had a simple message for his countrymen today: We won.
In his first televised address since the war began 11 weeks ago, Milosevic told his fellow Serbs, Yugoslavia's dominant people, that they had acted "heroically" in defending Yugoslavia against foreign "aggression." He described the Serb-led Yugoslav army as "invincible" and "the best army in the world."
Standing stiffly in front of a blue, white and red Yugoslav flag, Milosevic began his five-minute broadcast by declaring, "Happy peace to us all," then went on to say: "The aggression is over; peace has prevailed over violence." He said Yugoslavia had succeeded in blocking attempts by Kosovo's predominantly ethnic Albanian population to achieve independence.
"We never gave up Kosovo," he said, adding that the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia had been guaranteed by the United Nations and the Group of Seven industrialized democracies acting in concert with Russia.
Although Milosevic's claims of victory were met with skepticism and even derision by many people here, they seemed to strike a chord with a significant section of the population raised on a tradition of national defiance.
"This war was totally pointless," sputtered a 51-year-old Belgrade taxi driver, who said he had decided to emigrate with his family to Australia. "The only thing left for me is to leave this country as quickly as possible. When the winter comes, there will be no heat, and people will start fighting for scraps of bread."
On Belgrade's pedestrian Knez Mikhailova Street -- near the gutted American Library, whose walls have been stained with such graffiti as "Clinton-Hitler" and "Columbus was a curious jerk" -- a pair of students disagreed on whether anything had been gained by defying the United States and its allies.
"We showed that a country of 10 million people can hold out against the world's most powerful military alliance," said Dragan, an engineering student at Belgrade University. "The politicians in Europe and America did not understand the Serbian mentality."
His friend Misha said the war was unnecessary and that Milosevic and NATO should have been able to find a reasonable compromise that would have saved the lives of thousands of people. "The war was a huge mistake; it led to the destruction of the country."
Stop any two people wandering around this dilapidated capital or strolling near one of the government buildings that have been gutted by NATO bombs, and you are liable to come across a similar range of opinions. Despite leading his country through four disastrous wars -- in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo -- Milosevic has retained a core of popular support. Combined with control over the police, the army and much of the media, this has enabled him to present himself as the authority figure around whom Yugoslav politics revolves.
In Serbian historical tradition, heroic resistance to the enemy can be a kind of victory. Comments by Milosevic and other government spokesmen today suggested a deliberate attempt to tap into these national myths -- and particularly the legend of the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389, during which a technologically superior Ottoman Turkish army decisively defeated the Serbian army. Despite the defeat, the battle helped keep the Serbian national idea alive through five centuries of Ottoman occupation and is now regarded as the decisive event in Serbian history.
At a news conference here today, Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic evoked the 1389 battle, saying that Yugoslav armed forces in Kosovo had acted like "an army of honorable knights fighting the mightiest military alliance in the world."
In his televised address, Milosevic disclosed official military casualty figures for the first time since the NATO airstrikes began March 24. He said that 462 army soldiers and 114 police officers were killed in the airstrikes and that the names of all the victims would be made public.
Those casualty figures are dramatically lower than NATO estimates. Last week, NATO spokesmen said they believed that as many as 10,000 Yugoslav troops could have been killed in the first 72 days of airstrikes -- before Belgrade accepted an interim peace agreement worked out by Western governments and Russia. NATO officials said that hundreds more died in the past week in allied airstrikes along the Kosovo-Albanian border.
Milosevic, who was indicted by a U.N. tribunal last month for alleged crimes against humanity in Kosovo, called for a "mass mobilization" of people to rebuild the country's shattered industrial infrastructure. The United States and other Western governments have said they will not contribute to Yugoslavia's economic recovery as long as Milosevic remains in power.
Some independent analysts here said that Milosevic might use the reconstruction effort as an excuse for prolonging the wartime state of emergency and thereby ensuring his grip on the country. The emergency regulations include censorship of the independent news media, screening of university professors and restrictions on movement around the country. Milosevic hinted that he might be considering such an option, saying that it is important to preserve "the unity that was established" during the conflict with NATO.
CAPTION: A Kosovo Albanian child, waiting with other refugees aboard a bus before they are flown to temporary asylum in Germany and Denmark, watches NATO troops assemble at Skopje airport in Macedonia in preparation for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo that could eventually bring more than 800,000 refugees safely back to their homes there.