By Steve Painter
Five days of mass protests shook the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, Belgrade, in mid-March. Two people were killed and up to 160 injured as police, backed briefly by army tanks, attacked the protesters. The tanks were withdrawn after one day.
Protests initiated by the so-called democratic opposition drew up to 30,000 people, while the Serbian Socialist Party government of Slobodan Milosevic responded with a slightly smaller counter-mobilisation drawing heavily on ageing veterans of the World War II partisan movement.
The Socialist Party is the renamed Yugoslav League of Communists, the ruling party in Yugoslavia since 1945. While Milosevic regards himself as a communist, his politics consist mainly of Serbian chauvinist demagogy.
According to Dinko Dedic, editor of the Melbourne-based Croatian exile magazine Croatian Weekly, the politics of the Serbian opposition may be no better than those of Milosevic.
The main opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, is also a Serbian chauvinist demagogue. Draskovic goes even further than Milosevic, openly calling for the formation of a Greater Serbia incorporating neighbouring Bosnia and parts of Croatia.
Draskovic supports the restoration of the prewar Serbian-based Yugoslav monarchy, and describes himself as a Chetnik. The Chetniks were royalist forces which often collaborated with the Nazi occupiers of Yugoslavia during World War II.
Nevertheless, the Croatian republic, led by Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), called for Draskovic's release when he was imprisoned for several days during the protests.
Despite the weakening of the Serbian chauvinist position by the divisions in their ranks, Yugoslavia's minority nationalities remain concerned that the Serbian-dominated federal authorities and army could attempt to impose authoritarian rule.
There were rumours that the army was tempted to move during the Gulf War, while international attention was focussed elsewhere.
The protests led to a constitutional crisis as federal President Borisav Jovic, a Serb, resigned and Milosevic declared that Serbia would no longer recognise the eight-member federal presidium. Jovic later withdrew his resignation, and Serbia rejoined the presidium.
The crisis in Belgrade was accompanied by a declaration of independence by local authorities in the Croatian town of Knin, which has a large Serbian population.
While Knin is often described as a Serbian-populated region of ays the local population is mixed, and it is dubious that Serbs are a majority, though they hold most of the positions in local government.
The minority republics, which have no military forces, are now mainly concerned to avoid federal military intervention, as this would almost certainly result in heavy casualties.
As well, such action would most likely begin the long-predicted Yugoslav civil war, which would end any chance of the federation surviving, even in the form of the looser confederation demanded by the Croatian republic.