Little more than a year after protesters took to the streets to sweep hard-line Communist regimes from power across Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia is teetering on the brink of disintegration. Last week, faced with massive anti-government street protests in the nation’s capital, Belgrade, military commanders demanded that government leaders impose a state of emergency. For three days, the generals met behind closed doors with Yugoslavia’s collective presidency, an eight-member committee that includes representatives from each of Yugoslavia’s six republics and two provinces. The leader of the presidency, Borisav Jovic, a Serb, sided with the generals, arguing that only strong central rule could preserve national unity amid anti-government protests and inter-ethnic clashes across the country. But when a majority of the committee refused to impose emergency rule, Jovic resigned. In a national television address last Friday, he declared: “The country is at a critical stage of disintegration—this threatens to lead us into direct inter-ethnic conflicts and civil war.”
By Saturday, there were other signs of deepening crisis. The representatives from the tiny republic of Montenegro, Nenad Bucin, and from the Serbian province of Vojvodina, Jugoslav Kostic, also resigned, leaving only five of the eight positions on the presidential collective filled. Meanwhile, the president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, said that his republic, the country’s largest, no longer recognized the authority of the federal presidency. And in a television address, he added: “The destruction of Yugoslavia has entered its final, agonizing stage.” Officials in two other republics, Croatia and Slovenia, indicated that they would proclaim independence if the central government declared a state of emergency. And both the northern republics of Croatia and Serbia put their militias on a state of alert, while in Belgrade, military police appeared in the streets and tanks were manoeuvring inside bases on the city’s outskirts.
The sudden flurry of resignations and Milosevic’s defiance of central authority seemed certain to have dramatic repercussions across the fractious Balkan state of 23.5 million people. Jovic, a former Communist who represented the country’s dominant republic—Serbs constitute 36 per cent of the nation’s population—became leader of the presidency in May, 1990, in a routine annual rotation of collective members. The Croatian representative, Stipe Mesic, said that he will take over as acting leader. But some analysts questioned whether Yugoslavia’s fragmented presidency would be
able to control the military. Even as Jovic read his resignation speech, in which he accused other republican representatives on the presidency of plotting the breakup of the country, senior officers met to consider what action to take. And some observers warned that the army, having failed to impose emergency rule through constitutional means, might take unilateral action. Said one Western diplomat in Belgrade: “The question now is, Will the army accept this? If the army acts now, it will be a coup.”
Yugoslavia’s collective presidency, which
has ruled the country since the death in 1980 of Communist strongman Josip Broz Tito, has been largely paralysed by inter-ethnic squabbling since multiparty elections last year brought new, nationalist governments to power in four of Yugoslavia’s six republics. In Montenegro and in Serbia, former Communists, who are now called Socialists, retained power, although they too campaigned on nationalist platforms. On the republican level, and within the presidency, Serbian leaders have repeatedly clashed with leaders of Croatia and Slovenia, which have threatened to secede from the union unless they win greater autonomy.
The spark that ignited the latest crisis, however, was not an inter-ethnic conflict, but
rather Serbs’ demonstrating against their own freely elected republican government. It began when anti-Communist demonstrators gathered in downtown Belgrade on March 9 to demand greater freedom for the news media. Milosevic, whose Socialists won an overwhelming 194 of the 250 legislative seats-in multiparty republican elections just three months ago, ordered riot police and army tanks to put down the protests. That provoked a clash in which a policeman and a teenage demonstrator were killed. And for five days, tens of thousands of demonstrators brought most normal activity in the city centre to a standstill. On the fourth day, Milosevic bowed to their key demand, announcing the resignations of five top officials at the state TV station. The next day, the interior minister who commanded the security forces also stepped down.
Meanwhile, the 180,000-strong Yugoslav military remains a potential player in the unfolding drama. Dominated by Serbian officers, the military is still the conservative, elite and well-paid force that it has been since the days of
Tito, who created it specifically to keep together the country’s warring communities. Said Milo van Djilas, a former Communist, who became Yugoslavia’s leading dissident under Tito’s rule: “The army is still pro-Communist, Titoist. This is old-fashioned. The attitude of the army is provoking all nationalities except Serbs.” Analysts said that any move by the army to seize power, however, could easily provoke civil war. In contrast to the wave of euphoria that surged across Eastern Europe in 1989, the pro-democracy uprisings have left an embittered and divided Yugoslavia in their wake.
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