Milosevic, Serbia's Freshly Minted Peacemaker, Cashes In Back Home : Balkans: The onetime warrior returns from Dayton to consolidate power, oust unpleasant reminders of the past.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mihajlo Markovic is out of a job, recently purged from Serbia's ruling party after daring to disagree publicly with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Markovic's ouster was not surprising; he had fallen from grace some time ago. What made his departure remarkable was the manner in which it came about.

Markovic and several other top officials of the Socialist Party of Serbia were dumped during an unusual party meeting last week. The Serbian leader called the session, announced the firings, picked replacements and then adjourned for cocktails.

No discussion. No vote. Not even a symbolic show of hands, the token display of consensus observed even under communism. The meeting lasted barely 17 minutes.

"This was extraordinary," said Markovic, who had served as the party's chief ideologue and vice president. "[Milosevic] now feels, as the hero of Dayton--the man who brought peace and managed to lift the sanctions--he has greater authority than ever before."

As world attention focuses on the deployment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milosevic is riding high in his own country, brashly pushing aside those who cross him, those who may remind him of his warrior past and those who refuse to quietly ascribe to his revisionist version of the bloody events of the last several years.

The former head of Serbian television is gone. So is Milosevic's longtime right-hand man, Borisav Jovic. The chief of the publishing empire that controls the country's most influential newspaper has also been removed, as have two top officials holding local Belgrade party posts.

And there is widespread conjecture that the purges may soon extend to the police and the Interior Ministry, where top officials are said to know too much about Milosevic's role in the war in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia.

"Milosevic was one of those most responsible for the war, so he is now getting rid of those people who executed and witnessed his policies," said Vesna Pesic, leader of the Civic Alliance of Serbia, a small opposition party that has opposed the war. "He doesn't need these people anymore, and they don't fall in line with the new image he is building."

The government-controlled newspaper, Politika, announced in an editorial this week that more heads will likely roll. The newspaper said that "many important internal political issues" have been pushed aside because of the war but that with the peace agreement, they are "now finally on the agenda."

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Top on the list, the newspaper said, will be criminals who profited from the war--many of whom, the paper did not mention, owe their good fortune to their ties to Milosevic and his ruling party.

Milosevic has always exhibited an autocratic bent, shuffling government and party posts as the politics of the moment dictate. But his newly found favor in the West, won while helping secure last month's peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio, has boosted his sagging confidence for the first time since the war in Bosnia took a turn for the worse for Serbs.

The turn of events has placed his opponents in a difficult predicament.

As the key to the peace accord, Milosevic expects to be rewarded by the United States and its Western European allies, who have already agreed to suspend economic sanctions against the rump Yugoslavia--consisting of Serbia and Montenegro--and are contemplating whether to give other forms of financial assistance.

Milosevic's presence, therefore, is seen as inextricably linked to regional stability, which even his critics earnestly desire.

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If his detractors are right, Milosevic's domestic politics could have greater implications for Serbia than simply cutting short the careers of some newfound foes.

There are signs that Milosevic may be moving toward a formal alliance with the Yugoslav United Left, a coalition of 22 left-wing parties dominated by influential Communist hard-liners. Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, is the de facto leader of the coalition, and its members already hold about one-third of Serbian Cabinet posts.

Such an alliance could put the country's long-needed economic transformation on the skids, a transformation that has already lagged behind other Eastern European countries because of the war.

The Yugoslav United Left opposes some of the key market reforms many economists regard as crucial to the country's economic recovery, in large part because corrupt profiteers in the party have made fortunes off the existing system.

"The sense is, that if someone is willing to collaborate with the United States, his behavior at home is tolerated," said Mihajlo Markovic, who says Milosevic compromised too much in Dayton. "The same conclusion can be drawn from the United States' dealings with Boris Yeltsin in Russia. This sort of policy leads to less, not greater, democracy in these places."

"The nationalists are out, and now Mirjana Markovic and her party are in," one Western diplomat in Belgrade said. "It could mean heading back to . . . a peculiar capitalist kind of communism. The economic picture is not going to be pretty."

For the time being, it is unlikely any move Milosevic makes will face significant roadblocks. Not a single party official raised an objection at the meeting last week when he unilaterally purged the party ranks. The opposition parties, meanwhile, are so scattered, weak and discredited that there is no formidable alternative.

And a recent opinion poll published by the independent Nin magazine showed Milosevic's standing has soared among voters since the peace deal, although it is still low, with 36% saying they trusted him in November, compared to 22.5% in October.

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