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Foreign Correspondence: A Balkan Update

June 14, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

STEVEN ERLANGER: Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s talk about the day-to-day life in Serbia. It’s been about a year since the bombs stopped falling. Has there been much rebuilding?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, there actually has. You know, one of the things that President Milosevic has understood is that having lost the war, it was very important to resurrect his constituency and try to salvage the peace. And one of the arguments he has been making is that he has been able to rebuild the country, while NATO has been fumbling around in Kosovo. So they have made a big fuss of rebuilding bridges, rebuilding highways, rebuilding apartments and flats. They got through the winter. People were afraid there wouldn’t be enough heat or electricity, and they managed to sort of find resources for that, with the help of the Russians and the Chinese. And you know, I think Milosevic feels he’s gotten through the worst period. I mean he’s in a corner. People’s life is very difficult.

The government has very little money. The trade embargo still hurts. A lot of people are getting wealthy only on criminal activity. And there’s a lot of unhappiness in the country. But people are atomized, and there is a sense that he is not going to get pushed out of office. He’s showing a much stronger, harsher face than he’s shown before, almost daring the opposition, calling their bluff, they’re divided. So for the moment, you know, people’s lives are very difficult. But I think most people are really afraid of losing what little they have left.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Milosevic that comes through in the newspapers and television here is kind of like a very volatile stock. You’ll see a huge demonstration one day, and people quoted in the stories saying, “yeah, we’re close to the end.” And then you’ll read about something like the takeover of the newspaper and radio and television stations, and people say, “here’s the new iron fist coming down.” It’s hard to know exactly where he stands.

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, I think that’s true. I think there is a consensus now, like it or not, that anything could happen. It’s a bit like Saddam Hussein, you know, I mean there could be an explosion tomorrow. There’s a lot of anger in the society. But I don’t think there’s going to be a popular resurrection. I mean people are too tired for that. There was an opportunity for that this summer, I think, which was mishandled by both the Serbian opposition and by American foreign policy.

But now, having gone through that period, there is a period of consolidation, he is looking toward elections, which he needs to call by the end of the year for local elections and federal elections. And part of his pressure on the press is getting the propaganda machine ready to try to take back from the opposition at least one or two of the towns they won in 1996. That would be a big, big victory for him. The polls all show he’s very unpopular, but they also show the opposition isn’t really credible with the people. People regard them as too much fighting, too much corruption, and he’s manipulating very well.

RAY SUAREZ: But isn’t the opposition now showing a more united face than it has in the past, are leaders actually talking to each other, rather than styling and profiling?

STEVEN ERLANGER: That’s true. But they go up and down, too. I mean there was a period partly pressured by the Americans and the Europeans, where the opposition, which after all, there are 170 parties, I think there are 17 of them, where they were trying to get them to at least show a united front because one thing is clear from the polls, the Serbian people like the idea of a united opposition, but when you break it down into parties and individuals, they’re less happy. So that has worked up to a point, but every time they seem to come together, Milosevic has been very, very good at an issue, like the seizures of the television stations in Belgrade, Studio B, at raising divisions among them. And they are now, once again, divided over the question of whether to participate even in these local elections on the question of whether to be free and fair without access to media.

RAY SUAREZ: One big change since the end of the bombing of Serbia is that in the perceived patron, Russia, there’s a new leadership team onboard. Is that relationship still growing, still close? Does it strengthen Milosevic’s hand?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, it does strengthen his hand. I mean I think there are a lot of mysteries about Mr. Putin. I mean almost how he got the job is as interesting as who he is. I don’t think he knows what he wants to do about Serbia. For the moment, he has lines to both the opposition and to the regime. Serbia matters to the Russians because of history, because of orthodoxy. They want to have lines to whomever might run Serbia. They’re not ready to cut Milosevic off because they think he’s consolidating his position up to a point, even though he’s in a corner, but at the same time, they want to have lines to the people who might take over Serbia in the next six months to a year, so one sees a lot of ambiguity really out of the Russians and now real clear pattern.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s turn now to Kosovo, because after the bombing stopped and a NATO force took over there pacification proved more difficult than it was at first thought it was going to be, and repatriation proved to be difficult as well. What’s the situation today?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, I think it’s a mess. You know, I mean, NATO wasn’t really ready to fight this war. It wasn’t ready to go on as long as it did. It wasn’t ready for refugees. It wasn’t ready for the refugees. It wasn’t ready for the war to end, and it wasn’t ready to run Kosovo after it pushed out the Serbs. And it has been a year fiddling and mumbling around. It’s getting better; it has to. I mean, there’s a lot of investment of time and money – 50,000 western troops there; they are trying at least to put a lid on the violence.

But I used to joke to people and say, you know, we thought you were like Serbian nationalists, and wait till you see Albanian nationalism. You have a tribal fight over land; there’s very little generosity in either population. Now, some of this was the nature of revenge, which is understandable. But what you have now I think is an organized and fairly systematic effort to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo, so Serbia could never hold claim to it again. And NATO and the U.N. find itself stuck in the middle with a rhetoric and a U.N. Security Council resolution that says this belonged to Yugoslavia, which is part of the sovereignty of Yugoslavia, telling the Albanians you can’t become independent; everyone seems to feel independent down the road – it’s inevitable – but nobody knows how to get there. I mean, NATO is in this limbo. I think they’re going to have to sit on Kosovo for many, many years to come.

RAY SUAREZ: What about quality of life questions? Is there a civil administration? Can you get a license to open a business? Can you even get raw materials to do that business?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Those are important questions, and the U.N. would start it slowly, which is in charge of actually running Kosovo, has set up a lot of these institutions. You can now get a license plate, but nobody will make you do it. People do now pay some taxes. There are… The Albanians, without the help of anyone, have been rebuilding like crazy. They’re very industrious. And they have a lot of relatives with money abroad. So even though the international agencies were slow to provide aid, though they did provide lots of aid, Albanians got through the winter pretty well without a lot of people starving or freezing to death.

What you have, unfortunately, is an impunity based on the lack of law. The international community had made a big mistake in not imposing Marshall Law to begin with. There have been nearly 500 murders in the year since NATO took complete control over Kosovo. There hasn’t been a single murder trial, there hasn’t been a single conviction. And that I think is a disgrace. The West has not provided the judges it said it would provide. It hasn’t provided the number of police it said it would provide. And what is growing up there, I’m afraid, is a culture of impunity, of chaos that’s going to be very hard to eradicate.

RAY SUAREZ: And it will take a long time, too.

STEVEN ERLANGER: Yes, precisely.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Erlanger, thanks a lot.