The influential Serbian Orthodox Church called on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic today to resign in favor of a transitional government that would pave the way for early elections.
After a six-hour meeting, the church's bishops, including some who have supported the Milosevic government, agreed to appeal directly to him as well as to Serbian President Milan Milutinovic to step down. Those resignations would relieve "accumulated internal spiritual, moral, social and socio-economic problems . . . and the growing international isolation of the country," a senior bishop said.
The church's governing body, known as the Holy Synod and headed by Patriarch Pavle, asked Milosevic to resign in June, and the government responded by branding church leaders "traitors." Today's decision represented a significantly broader appeal by practically the entire church hierarchy.
But the conference of bishops decided that Patriarch Pavle should not accept an invitation by political opposition groups to speak at a planned rally against Milosevic in the capital Aug. 19, according to Bishop Artemije, the church's top cleric in the Serbian province of Kosovo and one of the most outspoken opponents of Milosevic in the Holy Synod.
Artemije laid out the church's position in a statement he read on a local television station in southern Serbian city of Nis.
"We appeal to the presidents of Serbia and Yugoslavia . . . to immediately make way for other figures to take over the helm of state and take the people out of the cul-de-sac in which they have been driven," Artemije said. Milosevic's term expires in 2001, and Milutinovic's is up in 2002. Serbia is the dominant republic in the Yugoslav federation.
The statement also strongly criticized international sanctions against Yugoslavia and the failure of an international peacekeeping force in Kosovo to stop attacks by ethnic Albanians on Serbs living there in retaliation for atrocities committed by Serb-led forces.
The church's call for a new government came on the same day that a Yugoslav general who was dismissed as army chief of staff last year by Milosevic said he is forming a new political movement aimed at removing the Yugoslav leader.
Momcilo Perisic said his new group, the Movement for Democratic Serbia, would seek to unite Milosevic opponents and work to bring about new elections. The movement will enter an opposition scene in which various political parties, alliances and ad hoc groups are working, so far without much cohesion, toward many of the same goals.
The political future of Perisic, 55, has been the subject of intense interest here since he spoke out publicly against Milosevic for the first time late last month. Since then, he has come under sharp criticism from the government and the pro-Milosevic military leadership, which has accused him of taking the side of NATO in its air offensive against Yugoslavia.
With Milosevic entrenched in power and the political opposition in disarray, many people here have been looking to Perisic in the hope that he can provide some sort of alternative leadership and draw support for the anti-Milosevic forces from the military.
In an interview, the lean, chain-smoking former three-star general lashed out not only at the Milosevic government but also at the Clinton administration, NATO, ethnic Albanian "terrorists" in Kosovo and the fractious political opposition.
Perisic said he was fired by Milosevic as chief of staff last November in part because he opposed using military force in Kosovo, favoring "democratic means" to deal with ethnic Albanian separatists there. But he said that once engaged, the army never should have withdrawn from the province.
He said he had no knowledge of any atrocities committed in Kosovo by Serbian or Yugoslav forces but was sure that "if there were any" the army did not commit them. In addition to Yugoslav army troops, Serbian Interior Ministry police and paramilitary groups were active in Kosovo.
Although he criticized the NATO bombing campaign, Perisic said he wants to secure Western help to rebuild Yugoslavia.