THEN the shouting and voting was over in Serbia's parliament last week, few could claim credit for defusing Yugoslavia's worst constitutional crisis since World War II. The Balkan federation was plunged into political chaos by Serbia's leadership after five days of student-led anticommunist street demonstrations in Belgrade, the federal and Serbian capital.
It was the latest round of unrest, which began last year after the once all-powerful federal communist party fell apart.
Furious over the street protests, which began March 9, and over relentless bickering with the independence-minded noncommunist republics of Slovenia and Croatia, Serbian Communist leader Slobodan Milosevic appealed to Yugoslavia's collective federal presidency to authorize the Army to impose a state of emergency.
When the eight-member body refused, he countered by declaring that Serbia no longer recognized the authority of the federal presidency. Milosevic claims that an "anti-Serb coalition is trying to destroy Yugoslavia."
What followed was a campaign to impair the presidency's ability to govern and to compel the Army to intervene.
After the presidency's refusal to declare a state of emergency, Borisav Jovic, Serbia's representative on the panel, resigned. Resignations by other Milosevic allies from communist-ruled Montenegro and Serbia's Vojvodina province quickly followed.
The presidency is made up of representatives from Yugoslavia's six republics and two provinces and is technically commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
In a move designed to end the power of the presidency, the Serbian parliament voted to recall the representative from Kosovo province, which Serbia controls, for alleged "anti-Serbian activities." That left the presidency without a quorum.
Militias and police reserves were mobilized. Ethnic Serbs in Croatia declared independence from Zagreb. Milosevic vowed to arm ethnic Serbs in Croatia if they were attacked by Croats. Road blocks went up. Troop movements around the country sparked rumors of an imminent Army takeover.
Critics charge that the autocratic Milosevic engineered the political crisis to protect his influence in Yugoslavia and to keep power in Serbia, the nation's largest republic.
Says Vesna Pesic, of the opposition Yugoslav Union for Democratic Initiative: "Milosevic wanted to provoke Croatian authorities at all costs to trigger war or emergency measures."
Milosevic, the only communist in Eastern Europe to be elected in multiparty elections last year, wants to retain strong centralized rule in Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia, the nation's most prosperous republics, favor a loose confederation of autonomous states. They have vowed to secede if no agreement is reached.
The national Army, led by Serbian and communist officers, has generally supported Milosevic.
But Milosevic's apparent assumption that the Army would intervene once the presidency was hobbled backfired. Tanks and military units, which were deployed in Belgrade for one day to quell the student protests, remained in their barracks.
A nationwide Army crackdown and martial law would have certainly provoked armed resistance, especially in Croatia, which has a large ethnic Serb minority. Fighting there would have quickly triggered an anti-Croat backlash in Serbia. Critics say Milosevic hoped such a scenario would boost his flagging populist appeal, much like his tough Serb nationalist stance on the reclamation of Kosovo province did in 1989.
"Milosevic's alliance with the Army proved weaker than he thought," says a Belgrade-based Western diplomat. "The Army was supposed to intervene, but the plan failed. Something obviously went wrong."
Military seen split
Political observers believe the military command is deeply split over whether to intervene. In a rare statement, the military last week said it would not interfere with political talks aimed at resolving the nation's future, but added it would "under no circumstances allow armed inter-ethnic conflicts or civil war."
The military statement also said it would tolerate no border changes without prior agreements. Although it did not rule out force under certain circumstances, the Army made it clear it would not move now, despite pressuring by Milosevic and other hard-liners.
Forces oppose martial law
Opposition leaders say Air Force and Navy leaders oppose martial law and that the Army command is also split. In addition, there are fears that the Army, whose conscripts come from all over the country, could disintegrate on ethnic lines if units were deployed in a long-term state of emergency.
Western diplomatic sources in Belgrade and opposition leaders say that when Milosevic realized that he had miscalculated the military response, he was forced to quickly repair some of the political damage he had ordered done to the presidency just days before.
Serbia's parliament took charge. With 194 of the 250 seats held by Milosevic's renamed Socialist Party, the outcome was predictable. The chamber, in a dizzying about-face, voted to refuse Jovic's resignation, thus unfettering the presidency.
The next day, at a meeting of the presidency attended by republic and provincial leaders, enough common ground was found to agree to a series of crisis summits. First-round talks are scheduled to begin Thursday.
Although smoldering hatreds, brinkmanship, and violence have often marred inter-republic relations in the past, many now believe there is a new urgency to the the talks; that the country's narrow brush with disaster last week has changed the stakes.
"Yugoslavia as we knew her is now history," says Stipe Mesic, Croatia's representative on the collective presidency.
"This country certainly cannot be held together by a mutual love between its various republics," he says. "The only unifying factors left are purely economic and matters of self-interest."
Still, many opposition leaders say real progress probably won't come until Milosevic is forced to back down or resigns.
Many Serbs also say the economy could collapse if prosperous Slovenia and Croatia are allowed to secede.
His opponents are not confident of a quick downfall.
"Milosevic thrives on chaos and conflict," says Serbia's nationalist opposition leader Vuk Draskovic. "And he has a lot to lose."