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Milosevic Unfazed by NATO Attacks

April 21, 1999

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ If NATO airstrikes are hurting President Slobodan Milosevic, he’s not showing it.

After nearly a month, the NATO attacks have wrecked factories, refineries, bridges, government buildings _ inflicting what the alliance insists is serious damage on Yugoslav army and Serb police forces pushing ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.

But while he maneuvers to try to break Western resolve, whip up international support or perhaps spread the conflict beyond Yugoslavia’s borders, Milosevic projects a message of power and defiance.

Reporters recently invited on a rare visit to the White Palace, Milosevic’s official residence, saw no trace of anxiety.

Impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit and red-striped navy tie, the 58-year-old leader seemed his usual unflappable self during a meeting with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. It was Lukashenko, not Milosevic, who displayed emotion, enveloping his host in a bear hug that seemed to surprise the Yugoslav leader.

Aloof as ever, Milosevic stayed behind while Lukashenko visited a military hospital and victims of the NATO strikes.

During television appearances, Milosevic typically sits in an ornate armchair, relaxed, legs spread, one fist clenched on an armrest. In a recent _and rare _ statement on the crisis, he told Yugoslavs that the key to defeating NATO was to ``work harder.″

The picture of an impassive Milosevic is a mix of personality and of tactics: Sit tight and act as if it doesn’t hurt.

NATO officials nonetheless insist Milosevic is troubled by the attacks, spending each night in a different bomb shelter.

More dangerous are his attempts to spread the war into neighboring states, and of pulling in Russia, hoping that will discourage the alliance.

Even if he wanted to, Milosevic may have no choice but to defy NATO. Most Serbs remain fiercely attached to Kosovo as part of their heritage and are united against what they consider unjust NATO aggression.

``If Slobo bends, that will be the end of him,″ says construction worker Momcilo Savic, reflecting the commonly held view in Belgrade. ``People will not forget that.″

Milosevic ultimately relented in conflicts earlier this decade in Bosnia and Croatia. However, neither of those territories represents to Serbs what Kosovo does.

In Serb history, winning or losing may count less than fighting to the end for what Serbs deem is a just cause.

``Even if he loses, he wins,″ says political scientist Aleksa Djilas, comparing Milosevic to a boxer struggling with a much stronger opponent and earning the hometown crowd’s admiration despite being knocked to the mat.

He says the West shares the blame for the present crisis _ and for Milosevic’s embrace of Moscow.

``For years, his whole policy was pro-American,″ says Djilas, citing Milosevic’s role in ending the Bosnian conflict and the easy access to the Yugoslav leader that U.S. mediators enjoyed. ``He doesn’t speak Russian. He doesn’t like Russia.″

Despite Milosevic’s push now to join the Russia-Belarus union, Moscow does not want to get involved militarily in the Balkans. The Yugoslav leader is left with trying to spread the war into neighboring states by, for example, sending Yugoslav army troops into Albania.

In another tactic to escalate the cost of NATO intervention, Yugoslavia has expelled hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians into Macedonia and Montenegro, hoping the resulting ethnic turmoil will topple their pro-Western governments.

Any expansion of the conflict beyond Yugoslavia would likely strain NATO unity to the breaking point and may even draw Russia into a wider Balkan war.

Milosevic is likely to survive the latest crisis, even if those scenarios don’t materialize and NATO prevails. Still he could stumble in the long term.

After Kosovo could come war over Montenegro, which now makes up what is left of Yugoslavia along with Serbia. Even during the Kosovo crisis, Milosevic has tightened the vise on Montenegro’s pro-Western government.

But after Montenegro, Serbians long focused on the Yugoslav wars will have no sideshows to distract them from the fruits of the 10-year Milosevic era: poverty, repression, isolation.

``This will create problems for Milosevic,″ says Djilas. ``And people will finally see him as the figure responsible for all the fighting, and for the disintegration of Yugoslavia.″