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Dents in Serb strongman's armor

Milosevic consolidates his power by purging top officials. But some say he may be heading for a fall.

During a decade of rule in which he has overseen cataclysmic change, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic has been a man of paradox.

He has been a hawk and a dove, a master and a servant, a hero and a villain - anything to stay in power.

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Now Mr. Milosevic finds himself in another paradoxical situation: He is both full of power and ready to burst. What happens to him, the topic of intense speculation in both Belgrade and Washington, will shape the future of the Balkans.

"Milosevic was never stronger," says Zoran Milutinovic, a professor recently fired for disloyalty to the government. "But at the same time he has never acted as if he were so threatened."

Sweeping purge

In recent months the Yugoslav president has consolidated his power in a sweeping purge that has cleansed the inner circles of his regime, the Army, the political opposition, the independent media, and the University of Belgrade. Rarely have there been fewer forces to oppose him.

But by doing so, he has weakened the very institutions that hold him in power, touching off speculation that there is nowhere for him to go but down.

"I think Milosevic is at the moment weaker than ever," explains Sreten Simovic, a recently retired Yugoslav Army colonel. He likens Milosevic to one "who has hallucinations of white mice attacking him. The regime is intoxicated with uncontrolled power, and they see an agent of the West in every freethinking citizen."

Most recently Milosevic fired Gen. Momcilo Perisic, the commander of the Yugoslav Army. General Perisic was considered to be a capable leader and reportedly objected to some of Milosevic's strong-arm tactics in the secessionist province of Kosovo. He was replaced by a close ally of first lady Mirjana Markovic, who heads an influential coalition of Communist-oriented political parties.

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Meanwhile, the cash-strapped government is taking desperate measures to collect revenue, including a proposal this week to introduce a new tax on unmarried adults and those who own cellular phones or pagers.

Colonel Simovic and others in Belgrade think that if Milosevic loses power, it will have to happen with the help of the international community. The United States, which at times has been accused of boosting the Yugoslav president by conducting high-profile negotiations with him, is rethinking its relationship with Belgrade.

"We have no illusions about President Milosevic," State Department spokesman James Rubin said recently. "We do not see him as a guarantor of stability in Kosovo or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia.... We believe he is the cause of many of these problems, not the solution to many of these problems."

Problems left and right

Indeed, Yugoslavia has its share of problems. In Belgrade poverty and corruption abound, and the independent media have been regulated into virtual submission. In Kosovo there is a shaky peace between Serbian police and secessionist ethnic Albanians. Milosevic attacked the international community over the Kosovo situation earlier this week, saying that the West had not dealt appropriately with the ethnic Albanian rebels there.

In Montenegro, the country's second republic (Serbia is the other), there is growing sentiment for independence, with a pro-Western and Western-backed president challenging Belgrade. And, in the Serbian half of Bosnia, leaders are squabbling with Milosevic over economic issues.

The problem for the international community - and for the Yugoslavs, 80 percent of whom do not support their leader, according to estimates by political analysts and diplomats - is that there are few if any alternatives to Milosevic. The political opposition in Belgrade is severely splintered, with some having bought into the government and others paralyzed by infighting.

"That's the $64,000 question," says a Western diplomat. "What are the options? I think events are driving us to a point where we will have to engage Mr. Milosevic on the full range of issues that have plagued our relations over the years."

According the diplomat, policymakers in Washington are giving greater attention to alternative ways of dealing with Milosevic.

One possible strategy, promoted by Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, would focus US efforts on strengthening the democratic opposition and other like-minded institutions in Serbia, including the independent media. Mr. Lugar suggests that "every senior US and European official visiting Yugoslavia should schedule meetings with opposition members."

The US may reportedly roll out a program at the beginning of next year that will include aid to independent media, academic institutions, and civic organizations.

Countdown to spring

But the clock is ticking. Although fighting has slowed in Kosovo for the winter, diplomats privately admit they have no idea what will happen in the spring.

And a showdown continues between Milosevic and Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who has been outspoken about the firing of Perisic and considers the entire federal government to be illegal.

Analysts speculate that Milosevic's next target could be Montenegro, which has a population of only 600,000 but is considered a Western beachhead in Yugoslavia.

Belgrade has already begun an attack using state television and taxation. Now Milosevic supporters, who are still influential in Montenegro, are planning a mid-January street celebration. Similar rallies have led to rioting.

"It doesn't seem possible that there can be a cohabitation of Milosevic and Djukanovic," says Montenegrin political analyst Srdjan Darmanovic.

"If the pressure from Belgrade is unacceptable, if the line is crossed and the signal is given from the international community, it's possible that Djukanovic [will try to break from Yugoslavia]."

That, analysts say, is when the real trouble would begin.

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