This country's largest republics moved onto a war footing Saturday, with Serbia and Croatia mobilizing police and reservists in the wake of a federal leadership crisis that has heightened the likelihood of a military coup.
Serbia's hard-line Communist president, Slobodan Milosevic, declared that his republic will no longer recognize the authority of the federal presidency and said the disintegrating federation of Yugoslavia has "entered the final stage of its agony."
The question remained open whether the federal army, whose officer corps is predominantly Serbian and staunchly Communist, would intervene to fill the power vacuum created by the collapse of the federal presidency.
The eight-man collective body charged with commanding the armed forces was incapacitated by the resignation of its chief, Serbian Communist Borisav Jovic. Although the Yugoslav constitution is vague about succession, Jovic's departure appears to leave army Chief of Staff Blagoje Adzic--one of the most authoritarian figures in the Yugoslav hierarchy--as commander in chief of the military forces.
Croatia and Slovenia, the northernmost republics, which have been working toward independence from the crumbling federation, have said they will immediately secede in the event of a military takeover in Yugoslavia and have vowed to defend their sovereignty with force.
Croatia ordered its 43,000 police and paramilitary troops on full alert early Saturday, after the armed forces threatened to take unspecified "emergency measures" despite twice failing to win presidential support for declaring a state of emergency.
The military high command said emergency powers are needed to prevent the battle over Yugoslavia's future from escalating into civil war. While the northern republics want to abandon the federation ruled from Belgrade, Serbia has insisted that the country be held together, by force if necessary.
It was the army's failure to win authorization for martial law that prompted Jovic to resign Friday. Two other Serbian Communists in the collective presidency, from the republic of Montenegro and the province of Vojvodina, followed Jovic in pulling out of the federal leadership, thereby intensifying the leadership crisis.
Some Western diplomats speculated that the army would be unwilling to stage a coup that would serve only to preserve the power of Milosevic, who faced his greatest challenge in three years as Serbia's political strongman last week when anti-Communist demonstrators paralyzed central Belgrade for five days. Military intervention in the political strife would trigger revolts in Slovenia and Croatia and might lead to mass defections among the multi-ethnic rank and file, they said.
But in the absence of a military takeover, Yugoslavia faced an extended and highly volatile armed standoff between Serbia and Croatia, where ethnic hostilities have been stoked to the boiling point.
Some of the military brass also reportedly believe that imposition of martial law would force the rebel republics to pay their share of costs to support the federal government. Most of the republics have been withholding some funds for the federal budget--two-thirds of which goes to the armed forces. That has delayed paychecks for tens of thousands of state workers, including the army.
Milosevic ordered the Serbian alert and formation of special militia units on the pretext of unrest in its predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo and in a Muslim region of neighboring Bosnia and Hercegovina. But there were no reports of trouble in either area.
The stocky, crew-cut Serbian leader's call to arms seemed more a summons to fight for Serbian domination of Yugoslavia.
In a televised address from his Belgrade office before a backdrop of the Serbian colors, Milosevic plucked at the nationalist heartstrings of the Serbian nation.
"The forces of the anti-Serb coalition have planned and are now trying to realize the disintegration of Yugoslavia," Milosevic said.
He accused the collective presidency of sabotage that "enabled the creation of republican armies which directly threaten the security of the country, all its citizens and especially the republic of Serbia and the Serb population outside the republic."
"Under the existing conditions, the republic does not recognize the legitimacy of the federal presidency," Milosevic declared.
He pressed for protection of the 600,000 Serbs living in rival Croatia. Serbia's Communist-controlled media have repeatedly accused the Croatian leadership of plotting to kill minority Serbs in the republic, and provocative incidents in Serbian regions of Croatia have been blamed on Milosevic supporters.
Police Saturday reported the fifth bomb blast of the week in Croatia's largest Serbian enclave, Knin.
The Serbian Parliament last month issued a declaration saying that all Serbs want to live in one country, essentially demanding that steps be taken to avert the secession of Croatia.
There were two theories on the Serbian mobilization. One held that Milosevic, backed to the wall by the recent Belgrade unrest, was going for broke and rallying nationalist supporters to settle centuries-old scores with Croatia. The other was that Milosevic was trying to stir such fears of armed conflict that the army would be forced to move in.
The 180,000-strong federal army reportedly was placed on heightened alert. Tanks maneuvered inside their bases on the outskirts of Belgrade, and military police armed with automatic rifles took up positions inside the city. Sources said leaves were canceled and officers were not allowed to go home.
However, the 5th Military District that includes Slovenia and Croatia denied that it had been mobilized and accused nationalist media of spreading such reports to cover up the activities of republic forces.
While there were numerous indications of a possible military coup in the offing, action might have been forestalled by fears that the multi-ethnic rank and file would defect to their native republics in the event they were ordered into an ethnic conflict.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman warned Friday that military intervention would be the catalyst for civil war.
Yet, about 10,000 pro-Communist demonstrators rallied in Belgrade in support of the army, urging military steps to preserve Yugoslavia.
A former military chief of staff, retired Gen. Stevan Mirkovic, told the elderly crowd waving Communist and Yugoslav banners that the army is the guarantor of Yugoslav unity.
"Army tanks do not threaten Yugoslav youth, because Yugoslav youth are in them," Mirkovic told the crowd as it chanted, "Army! Army!"
Other speakers called for federal troops to move into Croatia and forcibly disarm the republic's paramilitary forces, which Serbs and Communists contend are illegal.
"Such an action would provoke fighting, but there would be less bloodshed than if we let them continue to bear arms," insisted Slobodan Jelic, a 64-year-old Serbian pensioner who went to the rally to press for military intervention.
Army commanders met in an emergency session to consider how to respond to the crisis, but they issued no public statements during their closed-door meeting.
The five remaining members of the presidency convened with federal Prime Minister Ante Markovic, but Defense Minister Veljko Kadijevic failed to attend despite the leadership's invitation, the official Tanjug news agency reported.
The presidency members urged the republics to intensify diplomatic activity to resolve the crisis. But in view of the Serbian pullout from the body, it appeared unlikely that Serbia would heed the advice.