Political turmoil consumed Yugoslavia on Friday when federal President Borisav Jovic resigned amid rumblings of civil war, and an ominous military statement raised fears of a coup d'etat.
Prime Minister Ante Markovic was closeted with federal government ministers early today in an effort to stave off an explosion of ethnic hostilities that have been building among Yugoslavia's many nationalities.
Markovic previously threatened to step down if the fractious republics failed to ensure at least minimal functions of the federal government, which faces imminent bankruptcy because the republics have refused to support the ruling center.
But the prime minister's departure would expand the political vacuum created by the resignation of Jovic, opening a broad avenue for intervention by the Serbian-dominated federal army, which has made no secret of its preference for hard-line Communist rule.
Jovic, a Serbian Communist, resigned after failing to persuade the collective presidency he heads to authorize a state of emergency sought by the army.
There appeared no escape from a devastating political clash. Jovic insisted that only martial law could preserve the crumbling Yugoslav federation, but Croatian President Franjo Tudjman said such a move would impose "military dictatorship" and vowed that his republic would respond with a call to arms.
Fears of a military coup escalated after hard-liners in the army command staff stormed out of the third emergency presidential meeting this week.
The military hierarchy issued a statement many interpreted as a signal that it would take matters into its own hands when its proposal for a state of emergency was voted down 5-3, with only the Serbian delegates within the eight-member presidency supporting the action.
Army commanders proposed that "adequate measures be taken to guarantee the prevention of inter-ethnic armed conflicts, civil war and create the conditions necessary for a peaceful democratic settlement of the Yugoslav crisis, based on the law and the constitution," the official Tanjug news agency reported.
"The supreme command staff stressed that it is reviewing the situation created by the non-acceptance of the proposal and measures it will take in this regard," Tanjug said.
Seeking to justify its appeal for emergency action, the army said a grave situation exists in the country and that it is duty-bound to fulfill its role in "safeguarding the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia."
Jovic said he was resigning because opponents within the ruling body were "endeavoring to tie the hands of the Yugoslav People's Army as the last Yugoslav institution which might ensure the conditions for a peaceful and democratic settlement of the crisis."
Tudjman, the Croatian president, accused Jovic and his Serbian allies of plotting to topple freely elected non-Communist governments in other republics.
"A state of emergency would mean civil war in Yugoslavia and constitute a final blow," Tudjman warned. "In the event of a decision on imposing a state of emergency, all legal police forces in the republic would be armed and the government and other state organs would immediately prepare for the defense of peace, sovereignty and the free Croatian state."
Slovenia, which has already proclaimed its independence from the Yugoslav federation, decided Friday against paying its overdue federal expenses "as long as there are threats from the army ranks about the introduction of emergency measures," Slovenian Prime Minister Lojze Peterle said.
The announcement removed what was probably the last hope of immediately easing the Yugoslav financial crisis that has held up military paychecks for weeks.
The 180,000-strong federal army is made up of recruits from throughout Yugoslavia, but the top officer ranks are 70% Serbian and loyal to the Communist doctrine that previously provided them with relatively lavish pay and privilege.
As successive Yugoslav republics voted out communism over the past year, the military strengthened its ties with Serbia, where Communist nationalists won reelection in December.
Serbia and the army were also allied in pressing for preservation of the Yugoslav federation against secessionist movements in Slovenia and Croatia.
The army had previously hinted it might use force to prevent a breakup of the federation that the constitution charges it to protect.
"The country is at a critical stage of disintegration through a policy of fait accompli, without regard either for the country's constitutional order of the national and civic rights of others," Jovic said.
"The supreme command staff of the armed forces maintains that these negative trends must be energetically checked in order to create conditions for intensifying a constructive and democratic dialogue aimed at finding a way out of the economic, political and constitutional crisis in the country," Jovic said.
Failure to impose a military solution on Yugoslavia's turmoil "threatens to lead to direct inter-ethnic conflicts and a civil war, for which some are already armed and ready," the nominal head of state said in parting.
His resignation left a leadership void that would allow a coup, but no figure considered capable of holding together the multi-ethnic federation has emerged since the 1980 death of Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
The federal presidency wields considerably more power than the government because of its role as commander of the armed forces. The authority of Markovic and his ministers has also been steadily eroded by the republics' refusal to unite in working to salvage economic or political alliance.
Yugoslavia's federal constitution, which has become nearly meaningless--it does not even recognize the multi-party democracy now embraced throughout the country--makes no provision for resignation of the collective presidency chief or for his succession.
The presidential chairmanship rotates among the eight members--one each from Yugoslavia's six republics and two provinces. Serbia currently holds the chair, with Croatia set to take over May 15.
The head of Serbia's constitutional court, Balsa Spadijer, was quoted by Tanjug as claiming that Serbia has the right to name a new presidential chief to serve for the next two months.
The vice president of the collective ruling body, Croatian delegate Stipe Mesic, said he was assuming the leadership after Jovic's resignation. However, amid such constitutional chaos, it was not clear if his announcement was valid.
In his five-minute resignation speech, Jovic accused Markovic of "disastrously wrong" economic policies that he said "brought the entire society to the brink of bankruptcy."
Serbian authorities have repeatedly attacked Markovic in looking for a scapegoat for the republic's disastrous industrial decline, which has sparked recent outbreaks of labor and social unrest.
In a further sign that Yugoslav politics are succumbing to isolationism and paranoia, a new political party dominated by Communist generals called a rally for the defense of Yugoslavia today because, it said, "neo-fascism and bloody violence are circulating throughout Yugoslavia."
Yugoslavia has been poised for collapse for months, as the staunchly nationalist leaderships in Serbia and Croatia have rekindled age-old ethnic hostilities that were suppressed during 45 years of Communist rule.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic used his party's monopoly of the mass media to whip up an anti-Croatian hysteria among the nearly 600,000 ethnic Serbs who live in Croatia. The Communist-controlled press regularly accused Tudjman's leadership of plotting genocide, and the Croatian president's chauvinistic behavior toward minorities in his republic did nothing to ease the Serbian fears.
Slovenia and Croatia have been working toward secession, having lost faith that an acceptable federal arrangement can be salvaged among the republics divided by ideology, history, religion, language and culture.
The northern republics were ruled by Austria-Hungary for centuries, while Serbia and the south were long occupied by Ottoman Turks.