JUST as President Slobodan Milosevic basks in the glow of international recognition for his transformation from Balkan warmonger to peacemaker, the Serbian leader's former Bosnian Serb allies are threatening to undermine his new-found role, Western diplomats say.
Immediately after the United Nations Security Council's vote last Friday to ease sanctions against rump Yugoslavia as a reward for its recent blockade of the Bosnian Serbs, Mr. Milosevic's press wasted no time hailing the resolution to restore aviation, sporting, and cultural ties for a 100-day probationary period as a tremendous achievement.
The Security Council resolution on relaxing sanctions will come into force once the inspectors establish that Serbia, as it claims, has choked off supplies of weapons and fuel to the Bosnian Serbs.
But nationalist opponents have seized on Milosevic's ``betrayal'' of his one-time proxies to attack him mercilessly. They have labeled his decision to allow international monitoring of the border blockade a capitulation to the international community.
And the partial lifting of the UN embargo has provided the opposition with further ammunition. ``The Serbian leadership is behaving in a servile manner toward the international community, fulfilling all of its demands,'' said Slobodan Rakitic, a nationalist deputy in the Yugoslav parliament. ``The damage caused by the schism among the Serb people could be disastrous.''
But opposition parties pose little danger to Milosevic at the moment. While weak and divided now, they are growing in confidence and apparently bridging differences by rallying around the Bosnian Serbs.
Over the weekend the nationalists' fervor peaked, fueled by the defiant posturing of their ethnic kin across the Drina River. ``Serbia has slaughtered an ox for a pound of meat,'' said Bosnian Serb official Momcilo Krajisnik.
More worrying than rhetoric for Milosevic, however, is that the Bosnian Serbs now appear bent on turning their frustrations into actions on the ground. Not only did the UN reward Belgrade for punishing the Bosnian Serbs, but it also imposed its own tough measures on Bosnian Serbs, just a day after NATO launched a raid on their positions around Sarajevo.
Bosnian Serb military leader Gen. Ratko Mladic subsequently issued a series of statements, such as this one in a letter to the UN military commander in the former Yugoslavia: ``Due to the latest crime for which you and your forces are responsible, we cannot take responsibility for your activities in the Bosnian Serb republic.''
The Bosnian Serbs have also tightened their stranglehold of Sarajevo and stepped up their intimidation of peacekeeping troops -
closing the capital's airport and putting a stop to all UN military and aid convoys.
In Belgrade, there is much concern over the Bosnian Serbs' growing militancy. If they continue to provoke NATO airstrikes, and if the US succeeds in getting the arms embargo lifted against the Sarajevo government, the Serbian leadership will face an uncomfortable dilemma, observers in Belgrade believe.
``In the event of General Mladic's troops incurring heavy losses, Milosevic will be forced to intervene in Bosnia on their behalf,'' a Western diplomat says. ``Abandoning the Bosnian Serbs to a NATO rout or a resurgent Bosnian Army, would inevitably provoke an outcry in Serbia that the opposition is sure to exploit - making life very difficult for Milosevic.''
But in Belgrade, the highly influential state-controlled television network, together with pro-government papers, gave inter- minable coverage to ``Milosevic's victory.'' His supporters rushed to offer their praise.
``This is a psychological watershed,'' declared Yugoslav Foreign Minister Vladislav Jovanovic in a radio interview. ``It is a prelude to a quicker solution for the [Bosnian] crisis.''
``This is the beginning of the end of unjustly imposed sanctions against our country,'' said Nikola Stanic, general manager of the leading Belgrade bank.
On the street, people wearied by more than two years of sanctions and three years of war were not quite sure what to make of the Security Council move. But under the barrage of Milosevic-engineered propaganda, even the hard-bitten expressed some relief that perhaps this was the start of a return to normality.
Serbia's fanatical soccer fans certainly could not conceal their delight at the prospect of teams like Red Star Belgrade playing in Europe next season. The game's passionate following here was underlined by a recent poll. Asked what they missed most under the UN embargo, a majority of people said cheering on their sides against foreign opponents.
``Soccer is in our soul. But they're only offering us a psychological boost, not much else. Watching our teams in action against the best in the world will make the other sanctions easier to bear,'' said Marko, as he queued up for match tickets outside the Red Star stadium.
This less than enthusiastic response reflected the public's misgivings over the cost of having the UN blockade eased. While they yearn for better times, many believe Milosevic was wrong to turn against the Bosnian Serbs for rejecting the peace plan.