Staff purge by Yugoslavian president could be sign of regime's weakness After Kosovo pullout, dismissals may signal beginning of the end


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- In moves viewed here and by some in Washington as signs of weakness rather than strength, President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia has conducted an extraordinary purge of his innermost circle, dismissing the leaders of the army, the air force and the intelligence service, as well as one of his most trusted political commissars.

Few are brave enough to say how or when Milosevic, the strongman of Yugoslavia, will go. But many officials here and in Washington agree that the dismissals represent the beginning of the end.

The purge, conducted in the wake of Milosevic's agreement on Oct. 13 to pull troops out of Kosovo, culminated last week with the dismissal of Gen. Momcilo Perisic, the long-serving army chief of staff and an architect of the war in Bosnia.

In the last month Milosevic has been seen by former associates as increasingly insecure, even paranoid, as Kosovo drifts from his control, the enfeebled economy gets weaker, and he bows to the demands of his politically powerful wife, replacing his apparatchiks with hers.

"Deep in their minds they know that there will be social unrest and they want totally loyal people around them when it happens," Bratislav Grubacic, the editor of an English-language newsletter for diplomats and others in Belgrade, said of Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic. "He is closing the areas where he doesn't feel comfortable -- people in the state apparatus who might eventually become disloyal."

A Washington official who has followed Yugoslavia for more than a decade said: "The regime is brittle. It will crack. It will break."

The dismissals have inspired open talk here of the resemblance between the ruling court of Milosevic, his wife and their two wealthy children, Marko and Marija, and that of the Ceaucescu family in Romania, which was dominated by a husband-and-wife team and collapsed in a bloody downfall in 1989.

The fall of Milosevic would have important consequences for the United States.

Milosevic has been treated by the Clinton administration as an important keeper of the peace in Bosnia, where U.S. troops are based, and as a negotiating partner over the future of Kosovo, where the ethnic Albanian majority is seeking independence.

Milosevic rules from behind closed doors, rarely appearing in public and almost never granting interviews, even to Yugoslav state news media, which he controls. No official explanation of the recent dismissals has been issued.

The purges began shortly after the departure from Belgrade of the U.S. envoy, Richard Holbrooke, who persuaded Milosevic to agree to international observers in Kosovo, and were preceded by the closing of independent newspapers and academic dismissals at Belgrade University.

The removal of Perisic on Tuesday was perhaps the least surprising, after he publicly criticized Milosevic last month for allowing what is left of Yugoslavia to become a pariah state. Yugoslavia now consists of two republics: dominant Serbia and smaller Montenegro.

Perisic, who led the Yugoslav National Army during the atrocities in Bosnia, was reported to have opposed the use of his soldiers against ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo during the summer offensive there. His skepticism apparently infuriated Markovic.

The agreement on Kosovo between Yugoslavia and NATO was signed by Perisic, thus forcing Milosevic to wait a decent interval before getting rid of him. What was surprising was Perisic's decision to fight back.

On Thursday night the general taunted Milosevic with a statement saying he had been dismissed illegally and hinting that he was prepared to lead Yugoslavia down a different path.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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