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Slobodan Milosevic: why the crisis could last

NATO is bombing Yugoslavia with the expressed goals of stopping President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown against the Kosovo Liberation Army, to force him to accept NATO peacekeeping troops, and to weaken and degrade the Yugoslav military.

Critical to the success of this coercive diplomacy is the political psychology of Mr. Milosevic. An understanding of his personality and political behavior suggests the confrontation is likely to be protracted.

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Kosovo is not Bosnia, where Milosevic yielded only after a 2-1/2 week bombing campaign. Part of the sovereign nation of Yugoslavia, Kosovo is hallowed ground to the Serb people. It is the site of the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje, where the Serbs were defeated in a battle with Ottoman forces. Many of the holiest sites of Orthodox Serbian Christendom are in Kosovo. And Kosovo was the site of a transformational event in the political career of Milosevic, who was, by that time, chairman of the Yugoslavian Communist Party.

In 1987 Milosevic was, according to his political mentor Ivan Stambolic, "transformed and set afire by Kosovo," a region in Yugoslavia with a long history of ethnic tension, and 90 percent of whose residents are ethnic Albanians. In a dramatic speech in Kosovo, which helped catapult him to power, Milosevic spoke eloquently to his fellow Serbs.

"This is your country," he said of Kosovar land, homes, fields, and gardens. Not to fight for what belongs to Serbs, he told his inflamed listeners, would be to "disgrace your ancestors and disappoint your descendants."

The speech galvanized his followers and endowed Milosevic with heroic stature as champion of Serbian nationalism.

His own nationalism was late-found and instrumental to achieving his real goal of maximizing his personal power.

Having found his political voice, Milosevic in the late 1980s tapped into his reservoir of myth to fan ethnic hatreds. He became the catalyst behind the destructive wars in Croatia and Bosnia, in which hundreds of thousands of people died, and millions of of others were forced from their homes in "ethnic cleansing."

In 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje, Milosevic revoked the autonomous status of Kosovo, laying the foundation for the current crisis.

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Milosevic is variously called "the slickest con man in the Balkans," "the Butcher of the Balkans," a "mafia boss," and "a quintessential apparatchick."

He was born in 1941 in wartime Montenegro, the son of an Orthodox priest and a school teacher. His parents each committed suicide when Milosevic was in his 20s, as did his favorite uncle.

Milosevic attended law school in Belgrade, where he met his future wife, Mira Markovic. She was a sociology student who later became head of her own powerful political party, the Union of the Yugoslav Left.

Milosevic's vocation began quietly. He labored in various local and state bureaucratic jobs as an administrator and banker, revealing little of the charisma and ruthlessness that characterized his later rise to political power.

All along, Milosevic revealed himself as a consummate politician with "Teflon" qualities that allowed him repeatedly to weather domestic political opposition, international outrage, economic sanctions, and the destruction of the former Yugoslavia. He emerged as a key power broker in the 1995 Dayton peace accord.

But as early as 1992, then-acting US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger - who had served as US ambassador to Yugoslavia - suggested that Milosevic should be among those war criminals indicted for war crimes and genocide under United Nations auspices. Yet the International War Crimes Tribunal for The Hague has yet to indict Milosevic.

Serbia's economic and political culture are in tatters, and Milosevic has become increasingly isolated as he has purged top generals and the chief of his security forces. Indeed, he built a career based on betrayal - the most recent example being his former mentor, Mr. Stambolic, whom he displaced as president of Serbia within a year after the famous speech in Kosovo.

During his tenure, Milosevic has left in his wake a trail of unsolved murders of high-profile persons connected to him and his family.

Milosevic's Serbia has become a surreal and frightening labyrinth in which he retains control of the media, the banks, and the military and intelligence apparatus.

Milosevic is tenacious. He will not easily yield. In 1996, after he stole local election from several officials of the opposing party, Milosevic withstood months of political protest with 50,000 to 150,000 demonstrators regularly swarming the streets.

In the short run, the NATO military intervention designed to weaken Milosevic may actually strengthen him - allowing him once again to tap into Serb mythology in order to bolster his power.

Yet he cannot tolerate a prolonged NATO campaign. A militarily weakened Milosevic could ultimately be vulnerable to attack by Bosnia and Croatia.

After a sustained period of defiance, he might be open to mediation by a figure of international stature such as the UN's Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, or Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, which would allow a measure of face-saving.

But with or without Milosevic, genuine peace will not come to this conflict-ridden area until Serbia sees the creation of meaningful democratic institutions, and the healing of a generation's political and economic scars.

*Kenneth B. Dekleva is a forensic psychiatrist and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. Jerrold M. Post is director of the political psychology program at George Washington University in Washington, and co-author of 'Political Paranoia: The psychopolitics of hatred' (Yale University Press, 1997).

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