Balkan Ghosts Never Die

As word got out last week that Slobodan Milosevic might soon be arrested, his supporters declared they would build a "living wall" around his house. They said they would stop police from getting him. For a moment, Belgrade held its breath--and then let loose with a col-lective belly laugh. At best 50 "people's guards" showed up, most of them pensioners, the women with big hair, the men with old Lenin caps and shabby suits. Indicted war criminal Vlajko Stojiljkovic dropped by to praise "the greatest Serb of all times," and the demonstrators loudly cursed the press. Behind the high walls at 11 Uzicka Street, the only sign of life was the military guards assigned to the defeated president by his elected successor, Vojislav Kostunica. The protesters were too few even to encircle the walled compound, and when a cold rain set in at night they all went home. "The chance of Milosevic regaining power is nil," said a Western diplomat in Belgrade. "The only thing he can do now is negotiate a better deal on his prison cell."

No one doubts that Milosevic will be arrested--it's only a question of when, and on which charges. Behind the scenes, a furious debate raged within the Yugoslav government over just when to make a move. But the truth is that, only four months after the "Butcher of Belgrade" was ousted from power, his fate hardly seems to matter anymore. Milosevic's final passing from the scene, when it happens, will make dramatic headlines. But it may be the least of Yugoslavia's problems right now. That's an especially bitter irony for NATO, which has blamed Milosevic, with reason, for the last decade of wars in the Balkans. Yet even with a friendlier Yugoslavia, those wars may not be finished.

Why? Because in an almost Orwellian flip-flop, NATO's allies in Kosovo during the 1999 war--the ethnic Albanian guerrillas--are swiftly becoming the alliance's chief adversary. The Yugoslavs, the enemy under Milosevic, are just as quickly turning into NATO's new allies. The reason is that Albanian insurgents, sensing NATO's tilt toward Kostunica, have renewed their efforts to make Kosovo an independent Albanian state and ethnically cleanse it of the few remaining Serbs. That has led to increasing conflict between the Albanians and NATO peacekeepers. Washington and its European allies aren't ready to openly support independence in Kosovo, especially when the Serbian province is dominated by extremists who make no secret of wanting to spread their separatism. "We've seen in Croatia and Bosnia what happens when we start changing boundaries in the Balkans," says Predrag Simic, Kostunica's foreign-policy adviser.

The regional repercussions have already started. In the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, the guerrillas' numbers have grown in five months to between 2,000 and 3,000. Last week NATO reacted by promising to phase out the three-mile-wide buffer zone around Kosovo that was once intended to protect Kosovars from Serbs--but that has proved a safe haven for Kosovar insurgents. That would permit the Yugoslav Army to crack down. And for the first time, Albanian guerrillas began fighting inside Macedonia, Serbia's southern neighbor, which has a large Albanian minority, too. Macedonian Army counterattacks sent 500 Albanian women and children fleeing across the border into Kosovo.

Against these problems, the soft-spoken, lawyerly Kostunica has been buoyed by NATO support. International opinion has soured on the Kosovar Albanians, especially after the remote-control bombing of a KFOR-escorted bus that killed 10 Serbs, including a 2-year-old boy, last month. Hardly any Albanians condemned the attack, with the notable exception of the Pristina newspaper, Koha Ditore. "Our silence," the paper wrote last week, would be taken "as evidence of support of the existence of the secret idea of Greater Albania." There was plenty of oth-er evidence of that, as guerrillas in Kosovo crossed into Macedonia and Serbia on a campaign to stir up insurgencies there as well. Commander Remi, a former Kosovo Liberation Army commander from Pristina, last week showed a NEWSWEEK reporter patches that had just been designed for the uniforms of the Albanians' National Liberation Army in Macedonia. "They are getting help from inside Kosovo," Remi acknowledged. The movement of Albanian guerrillas across the U.S.-patrolled Kosovo border into Serbia's Presevo Valley is an open secret. "The Americans look at the stars when we go by," one guerrilla boasted. "The Americans in KFOR are only concerned with force protection, and they're not willing to leave their bases to really patrol that border," says International Crisis Group analyst James Lyon in Belgrade.

Political solutions may be even more elusive. On top of all of Yugoslavia's other problems, Serbia's sister republic, Montenegro, is headed for almost certain se-cession, perhaps as early as this spring. Yugoslav authorities say they will not interfere with an independence referendum there. That would leave Serbia as the only remaining Yugoslav republic, and Kostu-nica as president of a nonexistent fede-ration. It would also make the Kosovars even more keen to get their own state.

It is also possible, though unlikely, that Milosevic and his smattering of supporters could make yet more trouble. Three of Kostunica's top officials escaped several assassination attempts; the plots were widely blamed on gangsters close to the Milosevic regime. Many Serbs want to see Milosevic tried for a series of political murders as well as corruption. Last week officials around Kostunica signaled that the pro-nationalist president was ready to distance himself from the arrest issue. Kostunica, who badly needs Western aid, is no longer insisting on his earlier campaign pledges never to turn Milosevic over to The Hague. After a public-opinion poll on Thursday showed that 56 percent of Serbs think Milosevic should be tried by the war-crimes tribunal, Kostunica for the first time conceded he would not stop Milosevic's extradition. He told the liberal newspaper Danas on March 3: "We have to adjust ourselves to the realities of today's world."

Milosevic's halfway house on the way to The Hague is likely to be Belgrade's Central Prison. Meanwhile he and his wife, Mirjana Markovic, rarely venture out of their gilded cage--a circular white villa built for the dictator Josip Broz Tito in the last days of his regime. The former First Couple are said to spend their time watching romantic movies in the villa's cinema and listening to Mirjana's favorite music: Russian folk ballads. When Milosevic goes to the regular meetings of his dwindling Serbian Socialist Party, it's in the back seat of a Mercedes, hunched between two burly security guards--courtesy of Kostunica.

Last week the Belgrade prosecutor's office finally announced it is formally investigating Milosevic on corruption charges. They involve fraudulently obtaining a retirement home and illegally exporting state-owned gold to Switzerland in his last weeks in power. An arrest could follow at any time. The mild charges won't please human-rights activists. But they will let Kostunica focus fully on the many problems bequeathed him by a decade of Milosevic's misrule.