US officials would consider supporting a shadow government in Serbia in one of the latest scenarios to oust Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
The idea, which is being "batted around" the State Department, would involve opposition leaders in Serbia setting up their own centers of power within established state institutions, according to US officials.
In theory, a shadow government could try to convene a legislative council and provide some public services. It could be funded by the West.
But winning public support for the idea would hinge on the anti-Milosevic opposition doing well in coming elections. Although they have a solid majority of popular support, they have been hampered by infighting for the past five years. At meetings last week in Montenegro, they failed to agree on a common elections strategy, and there is speculation that they may boycott a vote later this year.
"The idea of a shadow government could come after elections, when you end up with several bodies in the Yugoslav government under opposition control," a US official said. Then, "the international community would have to choose who it would pay attention to."
The choice would not be difficult. Washington has been funding and cultivating the democratic opposition for years. Milosevic and his inner circle, on the other hand, are wanted by the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague for allegedly committing atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Yugoslavia remains critical to the US, both because of the enormous investment Washington has made there, and because of the real possibility that the US could be drawn into another Balkan conflict.
Furthermore, the Clinton administration has made it a goal to see Milosevic removed before it leaves the White House.
"As far as US policy is concerned, we want to see Milosevic out of power, out of Serbia, and in The Hague," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently said.
The parallel-government scenario is one of the first concepts for ousting Milosevic that both conforms with US policy and has the support of opposition leaders in Serbia. Yet, for now, it is more a "forecast" than a concrete plan, an official said.
Official US policy still relies on elections to shake up the power structure in Belgrade. But many experts say that approach can't work as long as Milosevic controls the media and counts the votes.
"To put any confidence in an election strategy is to play into the hand of Milosevic," says Charles Ingrao, a Purdue University professor who has been working with the Serbian opposition.
While the rest of the Balkans is inching toward democracy, Serbia has continually dragged the region into ethnic conflict and instability. Milosevic is blamed for starting - and losing - four wars.
At the moment, Yugoslavia's two remaining republics, Serbia and Montenegro, are in a diplomatic confrontation that could lead to another war. Montenegrin officials, set to meet a senior US delegation in Europe this week, are weighing whether to hold an independence referendum.
Another potential flash point remains Kosovo, which is still technically part of Serbia. It's unlikely that the province will ever be stable while Milosevic is in power.
And without a move to oust him, Milosevic could control Yugoslavia for a long time. He recently changed the federal constitution so he can hold the country's top office for another term.
The US has been unable to conduct direct diplomacy with Yugoslavia over the past year because the nations have cut all official lines of communication. The US embassy in Belgrade closed last spring when NATO prepared to bomb Yugoslavia over the conflict in Kosovo. Prominent US diplomats who worked the Balkans, such as Richard Holbrooke and Christopher Hill, are in other posts.
"In ... countries where dictators have fallen, our embassies have been very active," says a senior administration official. "It's harder to [be active] from the outside."
The US has, however, been keeping pressure on the Belgrade regime by using economic and travel sanctions that are targeted at Milosevic. The US has also begun to broaden the aid money it gives to Serbia, including a yet-unannounced package of "several million" dollars that will go to municipalities and civic organizations.
Some prominent Serbs, however, have recommended that the US needs to take more drastic steps to get rid of Milosevic. They want the US to offer Milosevic a deal to go into exile in exchange for immunity.
Milan Panic, a former Yugoslav prime minister who lives in the US and runs the pharmaceutical company ICN, has been urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to orchestrate such a deal. "We should make a deal just to get rid of him," Mr. Panic says in a telephone interview.
But US and tribunal officials say they would not let Milosevic avoid prosecution.
Although Milosevic's popularity is low, he has stayed in power by blaming the West for the country's woes. The high number of revenge murders by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo has also played into his hands. Moreover, China and Russia have also given Milosevic money and fuel, aiding Serb reconstruction after the NATO airstrikes. As a result, US claims of victory seem hollow.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society