By firing a moderate critic of the Yugoslav regime, President Slobodan Milosevic not only fortified his power structure, but he may have also thwarted the prospects for a diplomatic end to the war with NATO.
Vuk Draskovic, the ousted federal vice premier, had emerged this week as a leading proponent of a quick settlement to the Kosovo crisis. He even said the Serbs should accept armed UN forces in Kosovo - a position still far from NATO's, but somewhere in the realm of compromise.
Though his level of influence was questionable, he opened a public discourse for the first time since the airstrikes began. It was a small but significant glimmer of hope, one that Western officials were quick to pick up on.
But by firing Mr. Draskovic - by fax - Mr. Milosevic made it clear that he could have more to lose by compromise than by maintaining his hard-line position. Milosevic's tough stance came just as Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin was expected to arrive in Belgrade for talks with the Yugoslav president.
"A compromise for Milosevic means the opening of 1,000 problems he can't control," says a source close to the government. "Sooner or later it will lead to his removal from power. What can he offer the people in a time of peace? People will start to ask why they don't have jobs, a car, or any gas."
After he received news of his firing, Draskovic urged reporters not to interpret the development as a sign of division inside Yugoslavia. "All Serbs are united in readiness to protect Kosovo," he said.
Among Milosevic's most crucial allies are businessmen who benefit from Serbia's highly centralized government. In return for their loyalty, some are given high-ranking positions in state firms, while others are given exclusive importing rights.
According to the source close to the regime, that small but influential group remains behind their leader. "Everything they had was given to them by Milosevic," he says. "It's hard to see how they can pressure him now. One must not forget that their power is directly linked to Milosevic."
Furthermore, political analysts say that the Draskovic firing will hamper the small Western-oriented political parties that were beginning to come out of their shells in support of political compromise.
"There are only two relevant political parties now," says Vladimir Goati, a political analyst in Belgrade.
One, he says, is Milosevic's Socialist Party, which has all the top positions in the federal and republic governments. The other is a Communist-oriented coalition controlled by Mirjana Markovic, the wife of Milosevic, who is extremely influential in setting the ideological path of the regime.
Zeljko "Arkan" Raznjatovic, a paramilitary commander who was recently revealed as an indicted war criminal for alleged atrocities during the war in Bosnia, speculated that Draskovic was sacked by Communist elements. One of the few public figures here with enough security to speak openly to the Western press, Mr. Raznjatovic said that at issue was a confrontation between the democratic-leaning people like Draskovic and the Communists, who want to form a coalition with Russia and Belarus.
"As a member of the opposition I have nothing against what Draskovic said to the press, because I'm saying the same things," he says. "I'm saying the same things because it's very important for us not to go behind the Iron Curtain."
Nevertheless, it appears that Ms. Markovic's coalition is winning.
What's more, the sacking of Draskovic could adversely affect the efforts of Mr. Chernomyrdin, the Russian envoy who has been trying to bridge the gap between NATO and the Serbs. He is expected to arrive in Belgrade Friday.
Chernomyrdin and Draskovic had made nearly identical comments on the use of armed UN peacekeepers in Kosovo to ensure the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees.
Chernomyrdin last week told Russian journalists that Milosevic had agreed to that, but there was no confirmation from Belgrade, which seems to be holding fast to previous statements that it will not allow foreign soldiers inside its borders.
On Thursday, in Bonn, Germany, Chernomyrdin said only that Yugoslavia had agreed to a "UN presence."
Perhaps, says one analyst, Milosevic wants to keep fighting so that he can become the next Prince Lazar, the legendary Serbian leader who lost the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, but who became an emblem of heroism.
Milosevic "would rather lose 2 million Serbian lives than make a deal with NATO," the analyst says.