Serbian civil war considered unlikely
BRUSSELS, May 22, 2000 -- (Reuters) Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is more likely to be toppled in a quiet palace coup than to drag his country into civil war, say analysts sifting the latest developments in Yugoslavia for clues to his fate.
With riot police using batons and tear gas against thousands protesting media closures two nights in a row and more demonstrations threatened, they believe it quite possible that Milosevic could impose a state of emergency.
But they admit they are guessing when it comes to predicting what could trigger a putsch.
"Serious civil strife would be very bad for Milosevic," said a NATO diplomat.
"Civil war would be his ultimate failure, even if it afforded him a brief victory. It's not in his interest as the self-proclaimed protector of Serbdom."
Analysts think it more likely that Milosevic could be removed in a covert putsch like the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, whose face melted in disbelief when crowds booed his balcony speech in 1989, heralding revolution.
"Or it might happen in his bedroom," said one senior NATO diplomat, offering a less theatrical version of the "insiders' coup d'etat" theory.
Predicting the breaking point is impossible and NATO analysts are aware of the risks of wishful thinking.
But in view of his international indictment for war crimes, a soft landing for the Serbian strongman appears to be out.
Popular demonstrations or some unforeseen incident might trigger a move by disaffected officers to overthrow Milosevic and his wife in hopes of making a fresh start with the West.
"Retirement is not an option for Milosevic, so he has very little to lose," said Jonathan Eyal, an expert on the Balkans at Britain's Royal United Services Institute.
Western observers say their insight into the inscrutable Milosevic regime is limited. They are left guessing by recent events that might point to its accelerating disintegration.
"When you look at the swamp, the water lilies on the surface may look still. But life is bubbling up under the surface and the killings are the bubbles," Eyal said, referring to a spate of mostly unexplained assassinations.
The murders pointed to deep instability, but Milosevic himself probably did not know in all cases who was behind them.
NATO sources said the alliance did not believe the recent assassination of Bosko Perosevic, a Milosevic party man who led the provincial government of Vojvodina province, fitted into a pattern of previous hits with possible political motives.
What is very clear, on the other hand, is that the regime is bent on an orchestrated campaign of repression by shutting down the independent media, first on trumped up technical charges and now, in the case of Studio B television, for alleged treason.
"He's been picking them off quietly bit by bit in a way that seemed calculated to arouse as little tension as possible with the West," a NATO source said.
"Accusing the television of treason now suggests he may be preparing the ground to declare a state of emergency, and terms of office do not expire under an emergency according to the constitution."
The regime's next step could be to crack down on Otpor, the student-based resistance movement which seems to have gathered much more general support among Serbs than the chronically disunited party political opposition.
Analysts said it was important to remember Milosevic's track record as an excellent short-term tactician but poor strategist who has lost international support and is now clearly worried by polls showing his deep unpopularity at home.
Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic told reporters in Brussels this week that he saw the closure of Studio B as a sign of panic, but added that this should not be taken as an omen that "the dictatorship is nearing its end".
Djukanovic's pro-Western government is under a strict injunction from Western powers to keep its head down and not hand Milosevic a pretext for intervention to prevent a breakaway by Serbia's only remaining partner in the Yugoslav federation.
Besides, say NATO analysts, the presence in Belgrade of a large Montenegrin community would risk infecting the capital with disorders with their roots in Podgorica.
But Milosevic has manufactured his own pretexts in the past and may need no help to find an excuse for a diverting sideshow, especially if he believes NATO's warning of intervention to save Montenegro is all bluff.
Hopeful past assessments that the Yugoslav army was somehow above and beyond Milosevic were also proved misguided by its loyal and determined resistance under NATO's 78-day bombing campaign over Kosovo last year.
And with flashpoints in the divided Kosovo city of Mitrovica and the Presevo Valley to work on, Belgrade has no shortage of potential diversions.
Speaking of Milosevic's growing isolation, Eyal said that since the election of Vladimir Putin as Russian president he could no longer count on Russia's serious support.
Russian reports disclosed at the weekend that Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic - also indicted for Kosovo war crimes - had been officially received in Moscow this month and was not arrested.
This provoked frank words about international obligations when Russia's envoy met NATO counterparts on Wednesday. But NATO sources said Ambassador Sergi Kislyak displayed "Brezhnevian" aloofness, leaving the allies guessing about the true state of Kremlin-Belgrade ties.