The threat of a military coup still loomed over Yugoslavia after anti-Communist unrest subsided Thursday, but the crisis in Serbia has kindled some hope of an eventual easing of the ethnic hostilities pushing Yugoslavs toward civil war.
Serbia’s hard-line president, Slobodan Milosevic, has suffered what many see as a mortal wound to his authority, confronting him with a choice of relaxing totalitarian rule and bellicose national policies or risking a violent overthrow.
Anti-Communist demonstrators who had blocked streets in central Belgrade for five days ended their disruptions Thursday after forcing Milosevic to make concessions that have seriously damaged his image.
While the power struggle in Serbia is far from over and further clashes are expected, veteran political figures say the opposition has succeeded in smashing the Communist propaganda machine that fed Serbian fears of rival ethnic groups and exaggerated the federal army’s power to impose military rule.
“What happened in Belgrade is very important. If it’s not the turning point, it is at least the beginning of the turning point” in easing the ethnic conflict, said Milovan Djilas, a renowned writer and one of Yugoslavia’s most prominent political figures.
The Serbian crisis has raised the possibility of a change to a leadership that would be more acceptable to the secession-minded governments of Croatia and Slovenia.
Even if Milosevic survives--and many believe that he will, at least in the short term--the price of power will be acceptance of democratic reform and a market economy.
In an attempt to prevent the secession of Croatia, which includes nearly 600,000 ethnic Serbs, Milosevic used his party’s monopoly control of Serbian mass media to whip up an anti-Croatian hysteria with allegations that the rival republic was plotting genocide.
The media have changed radically over the past few days, since Milosevic caved in to protesters’ demands that he fire the chief propagandists. Live coverage of opposition rallies has shattered the image of a strongly united Serbia committed to Communist rule.
“The television station and the Politika publishing conglomerate are two of the pillars of this regime--without them all of Serbia would see that the emperor has no clothes,” said Vuk Draskovic, Serbia’s main opposition leader.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has said a non-Communist leadership in Serbia would greatly improve the chances for peaceful settlement of the long conflict between Serbs and Croats, Yugoslavia’s largest ethnic groups.
Draskovic has suggested that Serbia should negotiate with Slovenia and Croatia over their plans for independence, while Milosevic has threatened to use force to prevent their withdrawal.
Djilas was asked if Serbia’s political crisis was a beacon of hope for peace in Yugoslavia.
“Absolutely. For the first time, there is sympathy in Croatia for the Serbs,” said the once-ardent Communist who rose to the highest echelons of power after World War II before falling out with Marshal Josip Broz Tito and suffering repeated imprisonment for his open dissent.
Inspired by the uprising in Belgrade, Serbs in the Croatian region of Slavonia have abandoned Milosevic and opened a dialogue with Tudjman’s government, Djilas said.
Perhaps more significant than the damage the Belgrade unrest inflicted on Milosevic is the reduced stature the federal army has suffered by association.
“I don’t think the army is capable of making a desperate move,” said Desimir Tosic, vice president of the opposition Democratic Party of Serbia. “If it intervened, there would be a financial collapse of Yugoslavia. It would also have to intervene in Slovenia and Croatia at the same time, which would result in civil war. The army is not stupid. It knows it can’t win in a civil war.”
Still, there were signs Thursday that the Serbian Communists haven’t given up seeking a military option to preserve their power.
The federal presidency convened its second emergency session in three days to consider another army appeal for declaration of a state of emergency.
Some fears of an impending coup lingered despite the return to normal in Belgrade, the Serbian and federal capital. But non-Communist representatives of the federal presidency were confident that the army motion would be rejected.
The official news agency Tanjug also reported two bombing incidents in Knin, a Serbian region of Croatia, in which Croatian homes and businesses were the targets.
There have been fears that the Serbian Communists might provoke ethnic violence in places like Knin to create an excuse for instituting military rule.
But Djilas and others argue that the army has been weakened by the same events that have chipped away at Milosevic’s power.
“Without serious reason, the army involved itself in the events in Belgrade and in Pakrac. The Serbian government panicked, and the army responded to its call for help,” Djilas said. “This has greatly hurt its prestige.”
Federal troops and tanks intervened March 2 in the Croatian town of Pakrac to help settle a dispute between Serbian and Croatian policemen. They also thundered into Belgrade on Saturday after a brutal police crackdown on anti-Communist demonstrators set off the worst rioting in 45 years.
In both cases, the presence of the federal troops seemed intended more to intimidate than to intercede. The army arrived well after both disturbances had been brought under control by police.
Many Yugoslav analysts believe that the army is a paper tiger and that the threats of Serbian Communists to invoke martial law are the empty gestures of a declining regime.
The top military ranks are predominantly occupied by Serbs, and a long tradition of privilege and generous pay have made loyal Communists of the commanding generals.
But the rank and file of the 180,000-strong army is a mix of Yugoslavia’s various ethnic groups, and few expect non-Serbian recruits to heed a call to arms against their own nation.
The federal daily Borba, one of the few newspapers representing the interests of Yugoslavia over individual republics, said Thursday that there is a sharp split among military commanders.
According to the newspaper, Defense Minister Veljko Kadijevic believes martial law would only trigger uncontrollable unrest throughout Yugoslavia, while doing nothing to ease the financial crisis underlying the recent outbreaks of discontent.
None of the republics is paying its full share of costs for supporting the federal government, which must spend two-thirds of its budget to finance the armed forces. The federal treasury is virtually bankrupt, and tens of thousands of government employees, including army officers, have not been paid for weeks.
Borba said the commander of the general staff, Blagoje Adzic, has been arguing for military intervention. But the newspaper suggested that other top officers recognize the futility of trying to restore fiscal order by force.
The U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, has also warned Serbia’s leadership that it would face a cutoff of American aid in the event of a military crackdown.