PRESIDENT Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia has weathered the most difficult period of his six-year rule, his hold on power sustained by brute force and discord within the international community.
Mr. Milosevic has eliminated key political challengers and managed to maintain his influence within the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army. At the same time, he has escaped international military intervention to end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and avoided a potentially disastrous feud with Bosnian Serb leaders and their supporters in Serbia over his endorsement of the international peace plan.
Consequently, Milosevic remains the chief arbiter of political power in the Serbia-controlled remnants of former Yugoslavia.
"Mr. Milosevic is now stronger than ever because his opponents are confused, weak," says Filip David, a Belgrade author and journalist.
But with the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro beset by an economic catastrophe caused by international sanctions, many observers say Milosevic is having to use repressive measures to avert social upheaval.
"He is still king of the hill, but the ground is crumbling," a Western diplomat here says. "To stay up there now, he is prepared to use force against anybody who moves against him."
The regime's harsh treatment of Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, the main opposition party known by the initials SPO, makes the point. Despite international demands for their release, Mr. Draskovic and his wife, Danica, remain in Belgrade's central prison two weeks after being arrested and beaten by police.
The two were seized hours after clashes on June 1 between police and opposition supporters protesting an attack in the Yugoslav Parliament on an SPO delegate by a deputy of the Milosevic-nurtured Serbian Radical Party (SRP). The regime accused the Draskovics of undermining constitutional order - a charge defense lawyers say does not exist in the criminal code - and has refused to allow them outside medical treatment.
SPO officials and other observers contend that Milosevic saw in the June 1 riots an opportunity to eliminate the one politician capable of galvanizing the divided opposition and demonstrate that he would brook no dissent.
"The purpose is to destroy the opposition parties and to fill the citizens of Serbia with fear," says Nikola Barovic, a human rights lawyer representing Draskovic.
A day before the unrest outside the federal Parliament, Milosevic dispatched his other main potential rival, engineering the unprecedented ouster of the president of Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cosic, once a close ally. Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) joined with the SRP, the second-largest political party in the legislature, in passing a no-confidence vote against Mr. Cosic, who was accused of exceeding his powers and planning a coup with senior Yugoslav Army generals.
The vote itself violated the Constitution because it should have been taken only after charges against Cosic were upheld by the Constitutional Court.
Cosic's fall was apparently the price Milosevic agreed to pay in return for ending a feud with the SRP's ultra-nationalist leader, Vojislav Seselj, hard-line nationalist Yugoslav Army generals, and the Bosnian Serb leadership over his endorsement of the Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia.
Mr. Seselj turned against the former president last year because of his support for the pro-peace policies of former prime minister Milan Panic.
The rejection by the Bosnian Serbs and Serbia's ultra-nationalists of Milosevic's demand that they accept the Vance-Owen plan represented the greatest political rebuff ever dealt to the Serbian strongman. It raised a real possibility that Seselj would force new elections by withdrawing the support his party has provided to Milosevic-controlled minority governments in Serbia and at the federal level.
Milosevic, observers say, was aided by the disputes between the United States and its European allies over policy toward Bosnia.
While confronted with the growing threat of military intervention, Milosevic stood publicly behind the peace plan, announcing that he was cutting all but humanitarian supplies to the Bosnian Serbs. But when the Western threat proved hollow, he no longer felt bound by his decisions, anaylsts say, and mended fences with Seselj and the Bosnian Serb leadership.
Just how far Milosevic is willing to go in disposing of new perceived domestic challenges might be seen this week in the regime's reaction to opposition parties' plans to hold protests over the detention of the Draskovics.
He also faces new problems outside rump Yugoslavia, including renewed tensions with Croatia. Belgrade-backed minority Serb rebels there have called a referendum for next weekend on joining their territories with those conquered by the Bosnian Serbs.
Milosevic is expected to discuss that issue as well as the Bosnia conflict in talks this week in Geneva with his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, and Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic.