Milosevic ousts main opponent: Toppling Yugoslav President clears Serbian leader's path to control of army

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THE OUSTING of Dobrica Cosic from the post of president of Yugoslavia in a snap vote of the parliament ends an important battle with Serbia's powerful President, Slobodan Milosevic, for control of the army of rump Yugoslavia.

Mr Cosic was stripped of office at the behest of MPs of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj. The vote testifies to the growing influence of Mr Seselj in Serbia. But the outcome leaves Mr Milosevic the principal victor. Mr Cosic's head will not be the only one to roll. Mr Milosevic is likely to oust another top Serbian leader suspected of disloyalty, the Yugoslav army chief, General Zivota Panic.

Mr Cosic, 72, was appointed the first president of the rump Yugoslavia, now comprising only Serbia and Montenegro, at the behest of Mr Milosevic less than one year ago. Mr Milosevic then judged that Mr Cosic's great stature among ordinary Serbs as a nationalist writer and former dissident would lend weight to his own authority.

Mr Cosic was never a moderate or a liberal. In the Second World War he was a political commissar in one of Tito's partisan brigades, a position that demanded ideological rigour. Once considered one of Tito's favourites, he fell foul of the Yugoslav dictator when he strenuously opposed Tito's decision to relax oppression of Yugoslavia's ethnic Albanian minority in Kosovo.

In 1968 he was expelled from the Communist Party for Serbian nationalism. But he is best known for his role in drafting the so-called 'memorandum', a document widely seen as the manifesto of modern Serbian nationalism. Serbian liberals have always hated him and gave him the nickname 'Godfather of Greater Serbia'.

As president Mr Cosic soon showed he had ambitions to rule rather than reign. At a meeting with top generals last week he claimed he and not Mr Milosevic controlled the army. He also accused the leaders of Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, of plotting to secede. Montenegro was developing 'the Slovene syndrome', he said. Slovenia was the first republic to break away from Yugoslavia.

The empty boast about controlling the army gave Mr Milosevic an excuse to turn on his former ally. A rapidly convoked session of the Yugoslav parliament condemned Mr Cosic on 10 counts of exceeding his constitutional powers and expelled him from office.

Mr Cosic had long ago become more of a liability than a prop to Mr Milosevic. In Croatia and Bosnia Serb forces have seized most of the territories they want and Mr Milosevic is said to be keen to negotiate a peace deal, starting with Croatia.

In a significant speech yesterday, the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, Vladislav Jovanovic, a close Milosevic ally, announced that Serbia would urgently seek 'the normalisation of relations with all former Yugoslav republics, first of all with Macedonia but also with Croatia'.

Mr Milosevic undoubtedly wants to end international sanctions that are destroying his country's economy. Mr Cosic's intransigent brand of nationalism was an obstacle to working on these plans.

Gen Panic is another nationalist hardliner who has crossed Mr Milosevic's path. The pudgy army chief rose to high office on the ruins of the Croatian city of Vukovar, which he literally pounded to rubble during the war in Croatia in 1991. But once in office he flirted with Mr Milosevic's biggest foe, the moderate Yugoslav prime minister, Milan Panic.

The removal of Mr Cosic leaves Mr Milosevic and Mr Seselj alone on Serbia's political stage. Mr Milosevic has used the Radical Party leader to get rid of two key opponents, the prime minister, Milan Panic, and President Cosic. But there is no long- term future to their alliance. Sooner or later the Serbian president will have to turn on the ultra-nationalists if he is to achieve his ultimate desire - to rule Serbia alone.

(Photograph omitted)