Authorities may have found a superbly ironic loophole allowing them to hand Slobodan Milosevic to the U.N. war crimes tribunal, but they also have triggered a storm of criticism and may have touched off Yugoslavia's next big political crisis.
Ignoring a court ruling earlier in the day, democratic reformers based their move Thursday on a constitutional clause designed by the onetime strongman to reinforce his grip on power.
But as a result, the coalition controlling Yugoslavia's federal government will break up, the leader of one of its key parties said. Reformers in control of the government of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, also are badly split over the extradition of Milosevic to The Hague.
The layers of political infighting threaten to delay the passage of economic and political reforms necessary for the country to make use of the foreign assistance about to be pledged in a donors conference that begins today in Brussels.
The Serbian government is the real center of power in Yugoslavia. Montenegro, Yugoslavia's second republic, has charted an increasingly independent course under its president, Milo Djukanovic. Yugoslav institutions now have no authority in Montenegro, and a pro-independence majority controls its parliament.
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who took the lead in extraditing Milosevic, has lost popularity among Serbs who believe that their country is being bullied by the West. Although the standing of Belgrade's economic technocrats may have risen internationally with Thursday's action, their position at home has weakened, at least in the short run.
In the longer term, the international community, by demanding that Milosevic be sent to The Hague as a condition of financial aid and restructuring of debt, created a situation in which Belgrade's economic program was doomed unless they handed over the former president.
Although recent polls indicate that about half of Serbia's citizens supported sending Milosevic to The Hague, for many that is a grudging choice taken only in recognition that the alternative is economic disaster and a further fall in living standards.
Bowing to the inevitable has not won Djindjic popularity, although some residents of Belgrade on Thursday expressed admiration for his courage. There have been death threats made against some leading reformers, including one made during a Thursday evening rally by Milosevic supporters.
Some Say Kostunica May Quit Government
Meanwhile, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who is both an ally and a political rival of Djindjic, has succeeded in having it both ways. He has grudgingly gone along with the decision to hand over Milosevic but has scored points by criticizing the way it was done.
"Tonight's extradition of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague . . . could not be considered legal or constitutional," Kostunica said in a televised address.
"Out of the arsenal of Milosevic's policies, which really were disastrous for the state and the people, its most undemocratic elements have been taken over and revived--lawlessness, and making hasty and humiliating moves that no one in the international community has asked for, at least not explicitly," Kostunica said.
Observers believe that Kostunica might pull out of the governing coalition, which could trigger early elections. And polls indicate that he is by far the most popular politician in Serbia.
Supporters of reform worry that a complete falling-out between Kostunica and Djindjic could force economic technocrats, most of whom support Djindjic, out of both the federal and Serbian governments.
Despite his personal popularity, Kostunica lacks a strong party base or the loyalty of large numbers of highly capable officials.
Yugoslavia's Constitutional Court on Thursday issued an order blocking implementation of a decree passed Saturday by the Yugoslav Cabinet that was aimed at providing a legal basis for Milosevic's hand-over to The Hague.
The freeze was meant to allow time for the court to rule on the constitutionality of the decree, as requested by Milosevic's lawyers.
But the Serbian Cabinet responded by shipping Milosevic off to The Hague anyway and justifying its action with a clause in the Serbian Constitution that allows the republic to ignore federal authorities if their actions are deemed not to be in Serbia's interests.
When the constitution was written, Milosevic was the president of Serbia and was still worried whether he would get control of Yugoslav institutions, including its army.
The 18-party Democratic Opposition of Serbia, which took over when Milosevic was ousted last year, fully controls the Serbian government. However, it lacks a majority at the federal level and governs in alliance with former allies of Milosevic from Montenegro.
Predrag Bulatovic, leader of the Montenegrin party, the Socialist People's Party, said after Thursday's court decision that if Milosevic were extradited, it would mean the end of his party's coalition with the Serbian reformers.
Though observers expect the Montenegrin party to pull out of the federal Cabinet, there have been indications that it may not immediately trigger the fall of the Yugoslav government.
Milosevic's extradition also is being challenged on the street.
At a rally in downtown Belgrade organized by Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, speakers called for the city and all of Serbia to be "shut down."
"We are waiting for the commander of the army to join us," one speaker declared. He was referring to Yugoslav army chief Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, a Milosevic appointee who has been left in place by Kostunica over the objections of Djindjic and his allies.
Milosevic Lawyer Predicts More Charges
Many observers say Kostunica has refused to replace Pavkovic because the new president believes that any replacement might turn out to be more loyal to Djindjic than to himself. Kostunica has credited Pavkovic with playing a positive role in the hand-over of power to reformers after Milosevic's ouster, but many reformers still are ill at ease with the general.
Although very few fears have been expressed about the threat of a coup, Milosevic's lead attorney, Toma Fila, warned that, in the Balkans, what goes around comes around.
He predicted that after some future change of government, those who sent Milosevic to the tribunal could face criminal charges themselves. "Sooner or later they will lose elections," Fila said. "After one loses elections, one goes to prison. You've seen that in this example."
Special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.