BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Slobodan Milosevic -- gray and remote, internationally isolated and politically unpopular, charged with war crimes, his army restive and its reservists outraged, his economy ruined and his factories bombed, his refineries and electricity system smashed and his sources of fuel unclear, his roads and railways holed and his bridges collapsed -- has not only survived the loss of Kosovo but gained a second wind.
How he has managed to do so over the past five months is a testament to his grit, preparation and peculiar world view, as well as to his strict control over the levers of the state.Through the police, the army and the official news media, he has sown fear and uncertainty and belittled any pretenders to his throne, while deepening the divisions among his opposition. The possibility of a violent explosion is always here in this bruised, sometimes desperate nation.
But with less need than ever to please the West, Milosevic has shown a tougher, combative, intimidating side and intensified the sense of threat in the society, being more willing, even avid, to beat protesters, shut down newspapers and send people to jail.
The Milosevic era may be coming to an end, but it will not happen quickly. He has made clear that he will not be forced from his office as Yugoslavia's president without a fight, for which his opponents lack the courage and the troops, and he has managed to extend a degree of confidence to the rest of his regime.
He has also benefited from the manifold mistakes of his divided enemies, both foreign and domestic, to become a sort of European Saddam Hussein -- isolated, unpopular but apparently unmovable.
In late August, sensing the panic in his regime after the loss of Kosovo and a sizable opposition rally in Belgrade, Milosevic summoned the leaders of his party to stop the rot.
According to some who were there, he said the main task was to get through the winter, week by week, month by month. While opposition figures try to finish NATO's job and pull him down, he said, the government and the party must concentrate on the reconstruction of the country and patriotic activities of all kinds.
They must rebuild the bridges and the power and heating plants and ensure that every person whose house or apartment was destroyed by a NATO bomb had a new dwelling for the winter.
"Our companies must provide and help," he said, implying that it was time for those who had made money from their coziness with the Milosevic clan to stump up for their own preservation. "We need full mobilization of every segment in order to achieve the maximum."
The world would change, he said. President Clinton would go. The Russians would elect a new president, more nationalist, closer to Serbia. The world was tired of U.S. hypocrisy and hegemony, he said. The Europeans understood that the region needs Serbia. Just hang on. He would outlast them all, he said.
Whatever his peculiarities, Milosevic is described by everyone who meets him as possessing a strong will and an aura of confidence, and he rarely shows fear or unease. During the war, as one air-raid siren sounded 10 seconds after the others, he turned to a visitor with a genuine grin, saying, "That one's always late."
He is fond of indulging in the Serbian pastime of vulgar speech in private, over whiskey and cigars, as a way of establishing intimacy, and he draws others out, leading them on to judge their loyalty, while keeping his real feelings to himself.
He listens but makes his own decisions in private, usually after consulting his wife, Mirjana Markovic, whom he met at 17 and with whom he shares an extremely close and obsessional relationship.
He tends to stay out of the limelight, though he is making a few more public appearances these days, to show his vitality. Still, as is habit when he appears on the state television news, an announcer summarizes his comments, and his voice is rarely heard. He is a distant patriarch, generally floating above the swamp of daily politics and squabbles.
In what one Serbian analyst calls a "Slobocentric universe," created over the last 10 years of international isolation, he sits, like a gnomic sultan, high above a ruined landscape where he remains the arbiter of what few benefits are still to be had. Alexander Tijanic, Milosevic's former spokesman, calls him "an element in the Serbian periodic table."
He cultivates and drops allies with political acumen, using influence, money and pressure. Currently, he favors the ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, a tough politician who has brandished a gun outside Parliament and punched opponents, to protect his right wing and to threaten his foes.
In a group, according to those who know him, Milosevic, 58, is a stiff, self-conscious and rather clumsy man, with the fake air of a Roman senator, and he carries himself with a kind of artificial dignity, despising flattery and imitation.
Here, in a meeting of his Socialist Party of Serbia's "glavni odbor," or main committee, Milosevic was both steely and soothing.
"If anyone feels tired, he may feel free to withdraw," he said calmly. "I will understand this. I have nothing against this." Then he paused. "We are still a rasadnik for cadres," he said, using the Serbian word for tree nursery. "We have so many cadres that we could make 20 more governments as good as the one we have now."
Despite such an invitation, despite the West's ban on foreign travel for more than 300 Milosevic associates, and despite the most fervent hopes of the Clinton administration and the divided Serbian opposition, no one of any consequence has left the Milosevic government. There has been no significant split, not even any large cracks.