With ethnic conflict in Kosovo and Bosnia grabbing the world's attention, Serbian officials appear poised to launch a crackdown on the judicial system - a sweeping move that would strengthen the Balkans' leading instigator, Slobodan Milosevic.
Mr. Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, has repeatedly used moments of social and political turmoil to tighten his control of state institutions in Belgrade. It is how he survives despite having the support of an estimated 30 percent of voters.
And rarely has there been as much turmoil as there is now.
In Kosovo, the southern Serbian province, violence continues between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Although the Albanians appear likely to sign a US-brokered plan that would grant the region autonomy, the Serbs say they will reject a provision in the proposal that calls for some 28,000 NATO troops to police an agreement. US envoy Richard Holbrooke is expected to meet this week with Milosevic in Belgrade, and a resumption of peace talks is scheduled for March 15 in France.
In Bosnia, the country west of Serbia that broke from Yugoslavia in 1992, tension flared this weekend with the firing of a hard-line ethnic Serbian political leader and an international decision to allow the disputed town of Brcko to be ruled by all three ethnic groups: Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. Hard-line leaders in the Serbian half of Bosnia still look to Milosevic for guidance, and Belgrade officials point to Bosnia as further evidence of a US-led conspiracy against the Serbs.
Although the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia are not directly linked, they are neatly tied together by Milosevic, who is credited with having started four wars during a decade of rule. Critics say that Milosevic cannot survive politically without conflict, and therefore he encourages instability and nationalism to justify crackdowns at home.
The latest example is with the judicial system.
"The government needs crises to last. They need Kosovo," says Goran Svilanovic, an attorney at the Belgrade Legal Center. "The real enemy of Mr. Milosevic is not NATO, Albanians, or the US.... It is the few civic and democratic groups that have survived in Belgrade."
Already Milosevic and other hard-line leaders have cracked down on dissent in the independent media, the University of Belgrade, and opposition political parties.
Mr. Svilanovic and others say that one surviving patch of resistance is the judicial system, in which judges have lifetime tenure and are less subject to political pressure.
Of some 24,000 judges in Serbia, roughly a quarter belong to an unofficial society that encourages reform and separation of the judicial and political systems.
A purge of nonloyal judges would pave the way for greater crackdowns throughout society, legal experts say. Dragoljub Jankovic, the Serbian minister of justice, is currently drafting a new law to facilitate the process.
"We fixed the university, we almost fixed the media, and we will fix the judicial system," said Vojislav Seselj in a radical-party rally last week. Mr. Seselj is the radical vice premier who has spearheaded past crackdowns.
Although Serbian officials have yet to say how they will "fix" the judicial system, reform-minded judges are bracing for new elections and eventual replacement by officials deemed loyal to the regime. A "blacklist" of some 350 nonloyal judges has already been drawn up, says Bozo Prelevic, the spokesman for the independent judges' society.
"If you have a nonindependent court as the instrument of the ruling power, you can do anything," says Mr. Prelevic.
According to Prelevic, a purge of the judicial system would achieve three aims of the Milosevic regime: It would allow them to fix elections and stay in power; it would let them control privatization and dole out valuable assets to loyalists; and it would provide a mechanism for enforcing discipline inside the regime, which is becoming increasingly fractured. In addition, the judicial system may be the vehicle that Milosevic uses to launch further crackdowns.
Unlike many other institutions in Serbia, the judicial system has remained relatively functional during a decade of crisis. All the judges have been elected since Milosevic rose to power in the late 1980s, but many have maintained a semblance of independence.
Large numbers of judges began to break ranks with Milosevic two years ago, when the ruling Socialist Party falsified municipal election results and hundreds of thousands protested in the streets of Belgrade. One of the loyalist judges who upheld the election results (which were later reversed) was eventually named Serbian minister of justice.
The fact that Milosevic has only begun to pay close attention to the judicial system is an indication that he is becoming more and more concerned about his day-to-day survival, analysts say.
Milosevic is isolating Serbia from the Western world and using state media to convey a conspiracy theory that the United States wants to destroy Serbia.
Anyone who debunks these theories, such as some judges, runs the risk of being labeled a "Western collaborator."
"I don't think [the justice ministry] has any integrity," says Nebojsa Sarkic, a former deputy minister of justice who was fired a year ago. "It's a question of what Milosevic wants to do with the judiciary system. As the crisis deepens, the judicial system will naturally be affected."