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Saturday, May 1, 1999 Published at 13:04 GMT 14:04 UK

World: Europe

Change in the air in Belgrade

Vuk Draskovic was sacked from the Yugoslav Government

By World Affairs Editor John Simpson

It took almost 24 hours for the authorities here to decide what to do about the interview we had recorded on Tuesday afternoon with the leader of the opposition Social Democracy Party, Vuk Obradovic.

Kosovo: Special Report
In that time I imagine, the whole question must have been passed to the top of the political scale: It would be a pretty confident figure who would give the BBC the go-ahead to broadcast an interview advocating the overthrow of President Milosevic.

Shortly before 6am on Wednesday, the answer came back politely but firmly: No part of the interview could be satellited to London.

I didn't want to break the rules that govern my presence here, since this wasn't important enough to be thrown out for, but I didn't want to be gagged either.

So we put together a report in which I summarised what Mr Obradovic had said, while smoothing over some of the fiercer wording, and illustrated it with still frames from the interview. The censors passed it. Honour had been satisfied. Even Mr Obradovic was happy.

Courage to speak out

It must have taken real courage to speak to us in such strong terms. He had been interviewed twice before by Western journalists, one of who was later given 24 hours to leave the country, but on each occasion he chose his words with care and circumspection.

[ image: Vuk Obradovic: Milosevic is problem of Serbian people]
Vuk Obradovic: Milosevic is problem of Serbian people
In our interview he went further. He spoke of President Slobodan Milosevic as the problem of the Serbian people, and said in so many words that they would dethrone him.

In the past, people who have spoken up like this have paid a heavy price. Wasn't it dangerous for him, I asked? Maybe, he replied, but he'd been through too much to be afraid of something like this.

He has indeed. As one of the country's youngest generals, Vuk Obradovic grew more and more unhappy about the wars which Serbia was fighting with the former Yugoslavs as a result of President Milosevic's policies.

In the end he promised publicly that if his soldiers did not return from assignment by a specific date, he would resign. The assignment ended only a few days later, but he resigned anyway.

When he went into politics this was remembered in his favour.

He did not do particularly well in the dubious 1997 election, but he is regarded here as a man of principle.

More like a businessman than a former general, with an almost boyish look behind his heavily-rimmed glasses, he sat stiffly in his chair during our interview, his hands flat on the desk in front of him, answering in concise, well-prepared sentences.

Vuk Obradovic has clearly decided that there is political change in the air and he has taken the risk of showing that he is prepared to take advantage of it.

Other opponents cautious

Other opposition leaders are more timid, like the man we rang last week to ask for an interview. Unfortunately, his secretary said, he was busy, and anyway he had done a couple of interviews with the BBC already, by phone to London.

I had heard one of them: A nervous affair, in which he had bent over backwards to be inoffensive.

And then of course there is the other and better-known Vuk, Vuk Draskovic, who was sacked from the government last Wednesday.

After nine years as the best-known figure in the opposition to President Milosevic, Mr Draskovic suddenly accepted a job as vice-premier for international relations four months ago.

Even his most loyal supporters were appalled - until he began making public statements about the way President Milosevic's government was lying about casualties or the cost of the bombing, or about Yugoslavia's isolation, or the ineffectiveness of Russian help, or the unavoidable need to accept Nato troops in Kosovo.

British Government ministers liked to present this as a sign that the unity of the Milosevic Government was cracking, but it was just Vuk being Vuk.

He is as unguided as the Nato missiles which occasionally go off course and hit someone's private house - or the suburbs of Sofia.

His handsome features, framed by a Tsar Nicholas beard, stare out at you from old election posters on the walls of Belgrade, or from the covers of his novels in bookshop windows.

'Shrewd political observer'

At the news conferences he used to give, you could see the journalists begin to scribble down each new sentence, then slowly tail off as he wandered off into the thickets and marshes of rhetoric.

When he is not tired and emotional, Vuk Draskovic is a shrewd political observer. That was why he started to go public with his own view of the way this crisis should be resolved: To demonstrate his own independence, and to attract Nato's notice as someone they should mark down for future reference.

His dismissal from the government was inevitable once he had decided to take this line.

Some people chose to interpret all this as a sign that President Milosevic's government was showing signs of flexibility. No doubt at some stage it will - but Mr Milosevic wants the flexibility to be his - not that of the latest and least reliable member of his government

Nato may not like the voice of the Yugoslav Government, but at least it knows now where it comes from: From Mr Milosevic himself.

Craving cigarettes

As the bombing goes on, night after night, it is noticeably wearing people down.

[ image: Queueing for cigarettes]
Queueing for cigarettes
The long queues, which we are not allowed to film in the streets of Belgrade, are always waiting for one thing: Cigarettes.

Former smokers, and even non-smokers, are turning to the habit for solace.

Women who scarcely drank find they cannot sleep at night without a heavy shot of slivovic. The hours between 11pm and 3am, when the missiles usually fall, are the hardest to get through, and the sound of the explosions is simply terrifying to those who aren't used to it.

For a long time, people felt they were being bombed solely because they were Serbs, and they instinctively lined up with the rest of the nation, behind their president.

That feeling may now have been eroded. The other day we went round to a house in the old part of the city which had been destroyed by an errant Nato missile.

The middle-aged woman who had lived there sat outside in the street, surrounded by the things she and her family had managed to salvage from the house. There were a few household items, a pack of playing cards, and some books

I spotted Faulkner, Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms, it seemed) and the inevitable Vuk Draskovic, his handsome features looking up at me from the cover, among the wreckage of so much else.

The woman was folding some clothes which had also been saved. What, I asked, did she feel about the war now? If her house had been destroyed a few weeks ago I suspect she would have been defiant. Now she merely said: "I don't wish this on anyone. It's far too terrible."

As the bombing gets worse here, so increasing numbers of people may well come to feel that the only way to stop the explosions and the destruction and the pain is to have serious change at the top. The two Vuks seem to agree.

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