PRESIDENT Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia is embroiled in the toughest political challenge of his six-year rule as he tries to force the Bosnian Serbs to accept the international peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Seeking to end stifling international sanctions and insulate Serbia from possible foreign military intervention, Mr. Milosevic has increased pressure on the Bosnian Serbs. But never before has the Serbian strongman encountered such defiance among those he has nurtured to do his bidding. His decision to take a hard line against his Bosnian proxies has produced repercussions in Serbia that could lead to new instability.
"Milosevic is polarizing the Serbs," says Ratomir Tonic, a leader of the Civic Alliance, a small but influential coalition of liberal opposition parties. Most analysts do not believe, however, that Mr. Milosevic's grip on power is threatened, given that he apparently still commands the loyalty of the Yugoslav Army, the police, the bureaucracy, and the media.
For that reason, Milosevic will ratchet up the pressure on the Bosnian Serbs with an unprecedented meeting summoned for today between the Yugoslav parliament, and the Serbian and Montenegrin legislatures. The self-proclaimed assemblies of the Belgrade-backed Serbian forces in Croatia and Bosnia, though also summoned, have decided not to attend.
The so-called All-Serb Assembly is expected to approve a resolution calling on the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace plan authored by mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen.
The resolution would represent another salvo in an intense propaganda campaign the Milosevic-controlled state media have launched against the Bosnian Serbs and their domestic supporters. "Serbia desperately needs peace in Bosnia," Milosevic asserted in an interview with the official Tanjug news agency on May 11.
He reiterated that Serbia and its tiny dependent, Montenegro, no longer possess the resources to sustain the Bosnian Serbs. The 11-month-old UN economic sanctions on the rump Yugoslav union, which were tightened last month, have had a devastating impact. Justifying his decision of the previous week to cut off all but humanitarian supplies to the Bosnian Serbs, Milosevic said: "The interests of 10 million citizens in Serbia should be of primary importance."
Milosevic "is trying to survive. Without his latest effort to behave as a peacemaker, he would be facing a very hard time in the case of military intervention," says Stefan Niksic, a commentator with Belgrade's Nin magazine. "I would assume that he could not politically survive that."
For its part, the Bosnian Serb leadership has remained defiant, unwilling to accept the peace plan because it defeats the goal that Milosevic originally set for them: Securing a self-declared state that they could join to rump Yugoslavia.
Bosnian Serb leaders, rather than attending Milosevic's Serb gathering, have reaffirmed their determination to hold a referendum this weekend that is all but certain to sustain its rejection of the Vance-Owen peace plan.
Ironically, neither the referendum nor the gathering of lawmakers has any formal legitimacy. The former is not authorized by the Vance-Owen plan and has been dismissed by the international community as meaningless, while the latter lacks any constitutional or legal foundation.
Nevertheless, both have taken on considerable political significance. "This is a political game in which all means are used to achieve political goals," Mr. Niksic says. "Milosevic is a man who does not give up easily."
IN advance of the Serb gathering, Milosevic has been meeting with the chiefs of the legislative delegations. He reportedly is exploring the possibility of forming a government of "national salvation" with his opponents to defend against an expected challenge from the Bosnian Serbs' domestic supporters.
The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in Bosnia has provided the legislative support Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SRP) needed to maintain minority governments at both the Yugoslav federal level and in Serbia. But SRS chief Vojislav Seselj has expressed outrage over Milosevic's endorsement of the Vance-Owen plan and could withdraw his support, forcing new elections in which the SPS could be threatened.
Only by drawing opposition parties into a coalition could Milosevic avoid early polls. "What he has been doing is trying to build a new political base in Serbia," a Western diplomat says.
Analysts see no guarantee that Milosevic will succeed. The SRS controls the second largest shares of seats in the federal and Serbian legislatures and some opposition parties are totally unwilling to do business with the Serbian leader.
Even if he does tackle his domestic challengers, Milosevic still may have to take stronger action to force the Bosnian Serbs to sign the plan. That may mean allowing deployment of international observers on Serbia's border.