Secretaries in Belgrade show up at work convinced NATO bombs will start to fall again within hours--their boyfriends tell them so. Government officials ask whether another round would be good for Vice President Gore's election campaign. And generals report that Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas increasingly penetrate into Serbia seeking to provoke a reaction from the Yugoslav army, which in turn would involve U.S. soldiers just inside Kosovo . . . and who knows where things would go from there?
Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, buzzes these days with questions about what further steps the United States and its NATO allies are taking--or are willing to take--to promote the overthrow of President Slobodan Milosevic and his replacement by a government more to their liking. Moving around Belgrade and talking with its residents, it is not hard to understand why.
The scars of last spring's smart bombs and million-dollar missiles provide visible reminders of what the United States and its friends are prepared to do to get their way. Round a corner downtown and parts of the Interior Ministry lie in dusty ruins. Cross the Sava River to the New Belgrade neighborhood and the late Chinese Embassy, blasted by an American missile, is a pile of rubble. Rumors say unexploded ordnance under the debris prevents rebuilding. Chinese diplomats, relocated to a villa on the other side of town, are unavailable to explain, citing the press of Chinese New Year festivities.
The Yugoslav government also does its part. When Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic was assassinated at his cousin's restaurant here on Feb. 7, Information Minister Goran Matic immediately suggested foreign intelligence agencies were behind the murder. Vojislav Seselj, leader of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party and Milosevic's coalition partner in parliament, was more specific: He said U.S., French or British spy agencies did it.
Authorities already had announced formal charges against members of two groups, Spider and the Serbia Liberation Army, accused of conspiring to carry out sabotage and assassinate Milosevic as well as opposition leaders. Both were linked in public accusations to NATO-member intelligence agencies--Spider directly to the French spy agency, the General Directorate of External Security.
Aside from such public opinion shaping, government officials quietly and seriously discuss what the CIA might be up to to further the Clinton administration's goal of getting Milosevic removed from power. They wonder, for instance, if the agency might be airdropping counterfeit Yugoslav dinars to sow further turmoil in the economy. They ask whether operatives are wooing Milosevic aides or army generals to plot a coup d'etat. And they speculate that it might be egging on Montenegro's independence-minded leadership to precipitate a civil war that would shear off Serbia's last partner in the Yugoslav federation, result in U.S. intervention and push the Milosevic problem into a bloody finale.
Nebojsa Vujovic, the Yugoslav deputy foreign minister, told reporters who asked him about the speculation over Montenegro that a renewal of U.S. bombing in such circumstances would be "a veritable adventure, regardless of the excuses."
One reason such questioning circulates so readily is that solid information is hard to come by in Belgrade. Milosevic and his close aides--particularly his wife, Mirjana Markovic--operate in a tight circle. The Bulatovic assassination--the killer has not been found--is expected to tighten the circle further, making hard information even scarcer.
Few below the pinnacle of power, for instance, really understand how an economy suffering from a decade of conflict and supposedly under painful sanctions provides the wealth for people to frequent busy restaurants, buy gleaming new Mercedes and take vacations abroad. Many people, inside the government and without, murmur about semiofficial smugglers, tolerated black marketeers and well connected mafiosi--but few really know.
"I told a colleague the other day that if the CIA came and offered me a million dollars for information, I would have to say no, because I don't have any idea what's going on," joked a government official.
Another reason for the guessing is that the United States and its European partners actually are hard at work--openly--to undermine Milosevic's rule. According to local journalists, they or allied nongovernmental organizations support some opposition radio stations and newspapers and finance a media center designed to encourage discussion of alternative government. Viewed from the halls of power in Belgrade, that is sedition just like the defense minister's assassination.
"You are the same," Seselj told the opposition radio B2-92 last week, going on to accuse its broadcasters of treason by accepting money from abroad. "Those who received money to kill the minister and you who are paid to spread propaganda against your own country are the same kind of criminals. You are accessories to that murder."