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Milosevic asylum rumours

There's growing speculation that the Yugoslav president is planning to flee the country.

By Zeljko Cvijanovic in Belgrade

Speculation that Slobodan Milosevic is preparing to flee the country was fuelled on Wednesday when his wife Mira Markovic made a flying visit to Moscow.

A diplomatic source in Moscow confirmed that Markovic was welcomed at the airport by the president's brother, Yugoslav ambassador to Moscow Borislav Milosevic. "It was a private visit and I can only say that Mrs Markovic did not meet any government officials," another source told IWPR.

In Belgrade, the official media did not report on the trip and speculation that Markovic was seeking to negotiate asylum for herself and her family was neither confirmed nor denied.

Meanwhile, the Podgorica daily Vijesti reported that Markovic had suffered a nervous breakdown which prompted her speedy return to Belgrade. Sources within Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, denied this, claiming the president's wife had suffered "minor heart problems".

Milosevic's own conduct on Wednesday, however, offered no hints that he might be preparing to seek asylum. He held two meetings, one for the political and regional leadership of the SPS, another with the top officials of the SPS, the United Yugoslav Left, JUL, and the Montenegrin Socialist Peoples Party, SNP, headed by the Yugoslav prime minister, Momir Bulatovic.

An SPS source who attended one of the meetings says Milosevic managed to "rally the shaken ranks of his party officials." The next day he ordered a second round of voting in the presidential elections - and that evening state television showed pictures of Milosevic and his officials in very good humour.

The same source claims that SPS general secretary Gorica Gajovic told officials that the president had been "disgusted" by television pictures of a funereal-looking JUL leadership from the day before.

"The president gave the impression of being resolute and strong. I believe that we stemmed any defections and there will no crises in the party before the second round," the source added, refuting a claim by influential regime supporter Mladjan Dinkic that many of Milosevic's officials had fled Serbia.

During a closed session of the meeting, Milosevic is said to have dismissed speculation about a flight abroad as "propagandist nonsense". However, he could not deny meeting Greek Foreign Minister Carlos Papoulias in Belgrade last Monday.

IWPR's SPS source claims that two weeks before the elections, Papoulias brought a proposal for possible political asylum - dubbed the Greek-Russian offer. Milosevic was told that if he stepped down peacefully, asylum would be arranged in Russia or another former Soviet state - a plan allegedly agreed by most of the European Union.

The job of persuading the United States to accept the arrangement would rest with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the source said. But Milosevic flatly refused the offer, claiming he would win the elections with a wide margin. Papoulias, who is considered to be the only Western politician Milosevic trusts, informed him that the offer would still hold after the elections "but not for long", the source added.

Numerous media reported on Monday that a meeting between Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was devoted to the Yugoslav elections and to seeking a way out for Milosevic. Moscow officially denied that asylum was discussed at the meeting, but on Wednesday German minister Ludvig Folmer publicly endorsed an idea from former Yugoslav prime minister Milan Panic, that Russia should grant Milosevic asylum. "Granting Milosevic asylum seems more reasonable that risking a civil war," he said.

IWPR's diplomatic source in Russia claims that while unenthusiastic about the prospect of granting Milosevic refuge in Russia, Putin is now considering it as a last resort, adding without much conviction that "an ideal scenario for the Russians would be Kostunica as FRY President and Milosevic as Prime Minster."

The same idea was proposed on Thursday by the official head of JUL and close confidante of Mira Markovic, Ljubisa Ristic. "The Prime Minister wields the real power in the FRY, which is why we shall demand that Milosevic is Prime Minister. Even if the presidential function goes to Kostunica, Milosevic will be Prime Minister," he told the Italian newspaper Manifesto, claiming such an arrangement would satisfy the West which wants to see Milosevic step down from the presidency "at any cost".

Former EU peace negotiator Lord David Owen proposes that Milosevic should acknowledge Kostunica's victory, and that the latter should name him as ambassador to Beijing, where he would enjoy the security of the Chinese authorities. Although unrealistic, Owen's idea is astute as it incorporates political office and international guarantees, which Milosevic considers his best protection.

Whatever the president's tactics are, the course of the next ten days largely depends on the opposition. The first question is whether they will manage to organise mass protests and a general strike. If they do, will Milosevic refrain from using violence until the second round of the elections, scheduled for October 8.

He probably will, as he believes that will place Kostunica in a difficult dilemma - he can either oppose the second round, thereby counting himself out of the game, or he can agree to take part, which he would probably find humiliating. Milosevic is thought to believe that this dilemma has created space for negotiation with the opposition, in which the SPS can demand a share of power and a political office for the president.

If Milosevic doesn't win the second round or strike a compromise in which he gains political office, the remaining options are the use of naked force or exile. Certainly asylum has occupied the minds of Milosevic and his circle for at least a year, but it is not his chief concern at the moment.

Milosevic is in a corner, but he is not finished yet.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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