In an attempt to increase his leverage in Kosovo and maintain power at home, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is trying to build a coalition of states that could challenge United States influence, analysts and diplomats here say.
Mr. Milosevic, whom the international community blames for instigating the violence in Kosovo province, has in recent months found sympathizers in Russia, Belarus, and China - each of which is trying to prevent the US from wielding too much influence as the sole superpower.
The initiative, also being openly pushed by radical Serbian Vice Premier Vojislav Seselj, is to form a "neo-communist" bloc that would counterbalance US dominance and its capitalist-driven allies in world affairs. So far, the responses from Milosevic's potential partners have been mixed.
Even as Milosevic forges new ties abroad, the US is moving to set an ultimatum if Milosevic does not agree within a couple weeks to give Kosovo maximum autonomy.
Part comical and part threatening, the new coalition represents a major shift in Yugoslav foreign policy in the 20th century, much of which was characterized by close ties to France, Britain, and the US.
"It makes sense in light of what's going on [in these countries]," says a US diplomat in the region. "It's easy to dismiss it, but unfortunately when you have basket-case countries like these, where the change to capitalism was handled with total ineptitude, it's possible that some form of communism might be appealing to people of these countries."
On the other hand, notes Milan St. Protic, a historian at the Institute for Balkan studies in Belgrade, "History does not repeat itself in such rigid and clear forms. There is no example where something like a communist bloc was reborn."
Milosevic's partnerships are still in the formative stages. But the potential influence of such a coalition is being foreshadowed by the success Russia has had at blocking armed intervention in Serbia.
It follows that Milosevic's courting of these states has increased with the escalation of war in Kosovo, where more than 2,000 have died in a year of fighting. Most of the victims have been ethnic Albanians, who want independence from Yugoslavia.
Last week Mr. Seselj told Russian and Belarussian officials that Yugoslavia would like to join the three-year-old union between the two former Soviet republics, which includes close military, economic, and political ties. Although Russian and Belarussian officials were somewhat skeptical of Seselj, they gave Yugoslavia permanent "spectator's" status in the union.
Then the Yugoslavs called in a team of Belarussian medical experts, among others, to examine the bodies of 40 ethnic Albanians killed in Kosovo Jan. 15. The invitation was a slap in the face of more renowned UN experts who were denied entry to the country.
Also recently, Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic, who is considered the regime's ideologue, have taken well-publicized trips to China and promised greater economic ties between the two countries. The cash-strapped Yugoslavs even gave food to help victims of flooding in China last summer.
According to a Western diplomat specializing in economics, Yugoslavia is now getting oil through a triangular barter trade with China and countries in the Middle East. And they get much of their natural gas from Russia, where President Boris Yeltsin is having health problems and Milosevic is hoping for a left-leaning successor, analysts say.
"Over the last 12 months the Yugoslavs have been making an effort to guarantee more trade with Russia, China, and Belarus," the diplomat says.
Milosevic and his wife have also made overtures to India, among other countries - although the Yugoslav courting of India is less clear. The first couple has traveled there regularly and has been well received, according to the historian, Mr. Protic. They have tried to play on the close ties the countries had in the 1960s, when they were both nonaligned, Protic says.
Milosevic's moves toward new allies may bode poorly for US officials, who to date have taken the lead in negotiations with the Yugoslav leader - especially with regard to Bosnia and Kosovo. If Yugoslavia is successful in forming the coalition, future dealings with Milosevic could have broader implications - and run the risk of polarizing the US and Russia.
"The Serbian regime is now trying to find allies against the European Union and America and make a new cold war," says Nenad Canak, an opposition political leader who was recently thrown out of the Serbian parliament. "They're doing it to preserve their power."
Also, the plan is already deepening the split between Yugoslavia's two republics, Serbia and Montenegro. Montenegro's pro-Western president, Milo Djukanovic, this week called the idea an "overambitious effort to organize a bloc that would confront the US and European Union ... that is based on complete political blindness," the Montenegrin daily Javnost reported.
At the center of Milosevic's foreign policy is the issue of Kosovo. Observers say Milosevic is keeping his political career alive by prolonging the conflict and balancing Serbia on the brink of international war - which justifies crackdowns on the media and political opposition in Belgrade and helps keep him in power.
According to a Western diplomat, the concept of a new coalition may be directed foremost at Milosevic's own people, "to show that he is standing up to the international bullies who are trying to dictate what the world should look like."
After the killing of 45 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo two weeks ago, the Western powers have stepped up their threats against Yugoslavia. But Russia and China, both of whom sit on the United Nations Security Council, have objected in the past to military action against Yugoslavia.
NATO airstrikes or ground troops without UN approval would set a new precedent for military action - one that makes many Western allies nervous.