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How Serbia views signs of atrocity

Milosevic needs to look like a winner in Kosovo, so thepropaganda war escalates.

When 45 ethnic Albanian civilians were killed in Kosovo last week, Serbian state television reported that the fix was on: The victims, the television station said, were really uniformed guerrillas killed in combat - but their military fatigues had been replaced with peasants' clothes after death.

When last fall Serbian police allegedly killed an infant, that too was called a fake: The baby was really a rubber doll planted by Albanians, the state-run media said.

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And people in Serbia believed it. With war heating up in Kosovo, and the threat of NATO airstrikes being taken seriously in Belgrade, Serbian officials have stepped up their propaganda campaigns to a level not seen since the war in Bosnia. And, some here say, flawed international diplomacy may have contributed to the cause. For Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, more than public opinion may be at stake. Analysts say Mr. Milosevic's very survival hinges on his ability to manipulate the conflict in Kosovo - and look like a winner even if he loses the territory.

More than any other issue, Kosovo symbolizes Milosevic, who created ethnic tension there to launch his rise to power in the late 1980s. He may even want airstrikes against his own country to convince people that the loss of Kosovo was implemented by the international community.

"Milosevic ruined the country's economy, lost territory, and destroyed the culture," says Nebojsa Spaic, the director of the independent Media Center in Belgrade. "Now he is trying to get support because he is afraid of a Bucharest scenario."

Bucharest is the capital of Romania, where Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was killed by his own people in 1989 just as he appeared to have reached the apex of his power - a scenario that is being compared to Milosevic more and more here.

But as it stands now, Milosevic seems to be winning the propaganda battle. Mr. Spaic estimates that more than 95 percent of Serbs believe state propaganda - a wild mix of conspiracy theories, presentation of "secret documents," and reports of foreign spies who sympathize with the ethnic Albanian independence movement in Kosovo.

And the US may be partially to blame, Spaic says. US officials are just beginning to reconsider their approach to Serbia and may soon increase support to independent media and opposition politicians.

Furthermore, analysts say, the international community may have played into Milosevic's hands by their handling of the recent massacre in the Kosovo village of Racak.

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After viewing the ethnic Albanian victims, William Walker, the head of the verification mission in Kosovo set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, immediately fingered the Serbs. At an alleged massacre in August - of Serbs, in the Kosovo village of Klecka - international observers were careful not to pin blame until the incident could be investigated.

That small mistake - though amended by a Jan. 19 UN Security Council resolution blaming neither side for the massacre before an investigation had been undertaken - was easily picked up on by Yugoslav officials, who have ordered Mr. Walker to leave the country.

Even without Walker's statements, Milosevic would have likely found someone other than his own police to blame for Racak. And few in Serbia would have objected. Milosevic's regime has in the past months completed a total consolidation of power, having weakened the independent media and reshuffled the government so there is no real opposition in the parliament. Vuk Draskovic, the leader of mass demonstrations against Milosevic in 1996, joined the government this week.

While Serbian propaganda may seem absurd to international observers in the region - who often laugh at prime-time television newscasts - it is easily swallowed by the Serbs, many of whom are uneducated and unable to afford the few independent newspapers that are available.

What many people believe is that there is an international conspiracy against Serbs - a notion that former workers at state TV stations say is generated straight from the top.

Vlado Mares was the daytime news director for Radio Television Serbia from 1985 to 1990. One day in 1989, he says, he got a phone call from the new president, Milosevic. "We had a report about Albanian arms smugglers," says Mr. Mares, who now works for Beta, an independent but obscure local Serbian news agency. "Milosevic told me to say the weapons came through Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. He wanted to suggest that the Slovenian, Bosnian, and Croatian police were helping the smugglers. He said it was very urgent. I said, 'OK.' "

According to Lazar Laric, a 25-year veteran of state television, propaganda has reached new levels of sophistication during the Kosovo crisis, with slick production having replaced the crude imagery used during the war with Croatia.

"For the first time there is a real danger of war on Serbian soil," Mr. Laric says. "They have to encourage us, to mobilize a patriotic feeling that does not really exist. And they know how to do it."

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