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Milosevic Regaining Some Support

March 1, 2002

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BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Each day since the start of Slobodan Milosevic’s war crimes trial, Radoslav Mitrovic and his friends have gathered for a beer at the St. Djordje cafe and settled in for the best TV show in town: their former president flaying witnesses against him.

``Slobo has destroyed them all, the war crimes court, those alleged witnesses, America, NATO, everyone,″ Mitrovic said Wednesday, beaming at the way Milosevic grilled an ethnic Albanian witness who claimed mass murders and deportations by Serbian security forces during the 1999 Kosovo war.

The former Yugoslav president was swept from office in October 2000, arrested the following April and deported in June 2001 to face a United Nations tribunal in a humiliating process reflecting his fall from once-uncontested authority at home.

But reactions such as Mitrovic’s show that no matter what happens at the trial, ``Slobo″ is regaining support at home by doing what he does best _ defying the world.

Milosevic, the first former head of state charged with war crimes while in office, is accused of crimes against humanity in Kosovo and Croatia, and of genocide in Bosnia during the 1991-1999 Balkan wars. He could be sentenced to life imprisonment if convicted on any one of 66 counts.

The trial in The Hague, Netherlands, began Feb. 12 and could take two years.

The first phase involves Kosovo, where prosecutors contend Serb forces under Milosevic’s command murdered thousands of ethnic Albanians and deported 800,000 during a 1998-1999 crackdown.

In keeping with his in-your-face approach to the international community, Milosevic has refused to recognize the tribunal, claiming it is an instrument of NATO and Western powers who want to destroy him and his nation.

Milosevic, a law graduate, is defending himself. During the hearings, he maintains that the trial isn’t against him but against Serbs in general.

He has tried to shift the blame for violence to the 78-day NATO bombing that ended the crackdown and to the Kosovo Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian militant group that fought against Serb forces.

It’s working, at least for the home crowd.

Mitrovic, a 32-year-old unemployed construction worker, says he lost his ``admiration″ for Milosevic after he was ousted from power in 2000 without fighting back.

After Yugoslavia’s first democratic presidential election that year, supporters of Vojislav Kostunica declared victory but election officials claimed a runoff was needed, prompting massive protests and strikes that forced Milosevic out.

``He should have killed those pro-American bastards who unseated him and deported him to The Hague,″ Mitrovic said, alluding to the post-Milosevic leadership.

But now, ``he’s again becoming the Serb hero, bravely defending the Serb nation ... in front of this fake court,″ Mitrovic said.

Mitrovic’s friends, who identified themselves as Dragan and Zoran, nodded in approval, and other customers and waiters in the smoky downtown Belgrade establishment backed their on-screen hero with shouts of ``Hooray″ and ``Yeah″ every time he made a point.

Other signs point to a resurgence in Milosevic’s popularity in Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, since the trial started. More than half of Serbia’s 8 million people watched the first day’s broadcast.

The independent Strategic Marketing polling agency says support for Milosevic has increased since 2001, based on a recent survey.

``The ghost of Milosevic is back in Serbia,″ said Marina Vasojevic, a law student and Milosevic opponent. ``He has again managed to manipulate the Serb public and turn everything upside down, all thanks to The Hague.″

She was reflecting the widespread view that the tribunal’s prosecution prepared poorly for the trial, believing Milosevic would boycott the proceedings and give up without a courtroom fight.

``Milosevic’s trial should have been a way for Serbs to face the truth, reconcile with their neighbors,″ Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said recently. ``Instead, the court process has become a soap opera.″

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, instrumental in extraditing Milosevic, said recently the ``trial has become a circus,″ giving Milosevic a high-profile podium to blame NATO and the West for stoking the conflict.

That might hamper future efforts to try more Serb suspects, he said.

``The tribunal lost credibility in our population,″ Djindjic said. ``What justification do I have now to extradite others and urge close cooperation with the tribunal?″

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