BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic suffered a serious blow to his already waning power and prestige Friday when Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic, the ideological godfather of Serbs, called on him to resign for the good of the nation.
Cosic's denunciation of the Serbian president kicks away the last major pillar of political support under the Milosevic regime, which stands accused of fomenting ethnic bloodshed in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and of exposing Serbs to international scorn and financial ruin.
The federal president's action also draws an unmistakable battle line between the new Yugoslav leadership and the bellicose nationalists still siding with Milosevic.
But in a disturbing sign that Milosevic will fight the intensified efforts to oust him, radical backers used a publicly broadcast parliamentary debate to pounce on Cosic and Prime Minister Milan Panic for allegedly selling out the interests of Serbs now divided among several pieces of fractured Yugoslavia.
Milosevic still controls a wide network of warlords and secret police, especially in volatile Kosovo Province, where ethnic tensions are on the verge of explosion. As the conflict at the highest levels of power sharpens, many fear that the Serbian president may be willing to take his nation down with him in a desperate attempt to cling to power.
In an interview with the main Belgrade newspaper Politika, Cosic said he and Milosevic "differ essentially in our understanding of democracy" and how to rescue Yugoslavia from the pain and humiliation of U.N. sanctions.
"If people wrote and spoke at home and abroad about my resignation as they do about Slobodan Milosevic, I would resign," Cosic told Politika, which until recently was a mouthpiece for Milosevic and his Serbian Socialist Party.
Cosic, a revered nationalist writer, was the inspiration for Milosevic's powerful rallying cry that all Serbs have the right to remain together in one nation, despite the independence votes taken in other republics that were once part of Yugoslavia.
After Croatia seceded in June, 1991, Belgrade funneled troops and arms into predominantly Serbian areas of the republic to support insurrection. More than 10,000 were killed on Croatian battlefields last year.
Serbian guerrillas also rushed to the side of their fellow militants in Bosnia after Slavic Muslims and Croats voted for independence in March. Fierce fighting in the ravaged republic continues, with the official six-month death toll over 14,000, another 50,000 people listed as missing and presumed dead and nearly 2 million forced from their homes by gunfire and "ethnic cleansing."
U.N. sanctions were imposed May 30 on what is left of Yugoslavia--the republics of Serbia and Montenegro--in hopes of pressuring Belgrade to cease supply and encouragement of the deadly sieges in Bosnia.
President Bush symbolically increased the pressure Friday, signing a bill that deprives Yugoslavia of most-favored-nation trade status. The trade status allows the lowest U.S. tariffs for a country's exports to the United States, but with the U.N. embargo in place, the move is merely an expression of U.S. displeasure.
The global oil and trade embargo have begun to inconvenience many Serbs, whose bankrolling of the recent wars had already sapped their economy. Hyper-inflation, rampant unemployment and fuel shortages have eroded support for Milosevic and prompted former allies like Cosic to distance themselves from him in hopes of surviving a looming popular revolt.
But the heavily armed secret police and paramilitary forces ruling Kosovo and some parts of vanquished Bosnia remain loyal to Milosevic. If the Serbian president, who has a family history of suicide, feels encircled by federal and Western enemies, many fear he might ignite the Kosovo time bomb, plunging all of the Balkan Peninsula into war.
After Cosic addressed the federal Parliament on Friday, Milosevic allies accused him of caving in to what they see as a devious foreign plot against Serbs. Yugoslavia should continue to defy Western efforts to starve it into submission, argued the head of Milosevic's party, Borisav Jovic, who said Serbs face "international conspiracy and crime against our country."
Largely as a result of five years of fierce propaganda drafted by both Milosevic and Cosic, many Serbs believe they had to go to war to fight a revived fascist state in Croatia and to thwart an imagined threat of Muslim fundamentalism in Bosnia.
Kosovo is now the focus of fears that the Yugoslav conflict could spread. Milosevic has made clear he will accept no relaxation of an armed Serbian crackdown on the region where Serbs are outnumbered by ethnic Albanians by 10 to one.