BELGRADE, Yugoslavia – Hunching over a long table, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica squinted into the television lights, turned to his people and confessed that higher powers had gotten the best of him.
Kostunica said that others in the government had "overruled" his opposition to Slobodan Milosevic's extradition to the U.N. war crimes tribunal a week ago. Then, as if that wasn't humiliating enough, he was kept in the dark about the handover itself. Like millions of ordinary Serbs, he heard about it from the media.
"He's somewhat discredited," said political analyst Aleksa Djilas. "I would guess he's still the most popular politician. But [his image is] dented -- it's scratched."
Kostunica's confessions come at a delicate time for Yugoslavia, where Milosevic's snap extradition has laid bare a political morass that will test the new president's leadership as never before.
The man who unified his country to oust Milosevic from the presidency by favoring deliberate and calculated action is facing rebellion from within his coalition's ranks. The opposition is coming from those demanding faster and more radical moves -- like Milosevic's extradition -- to push Yugoslavia into the embrace of the West.
Leading the charge is Kostunica's chief rival, Zoran Djindjic. As prime minister of Serbia, Yugoslavia's largest republic, he wields more power and influence in the country's day-to-day affairs than Kostunica does as federal president.
Djindjic, a German-educated technocrat known to his fans as "the manager" for his organizational skills and as "Little Slobo" to his detractors for his authoritarian tendencies, may have gained political capital from his willingness to surrender Milosevic despite a constitutional ban on extraditing Yugoslav citizens.
Though derided for his fondness for big cars and flashy suits, Djindjic's trade of Milosevic for $1.2 billion in international economic aid appears to have won respect from people desperate to improve a living standard that ranks among the lowest in Europe.
"Thank God we found someone brave enough to do it," said Dragi Sofkovski, 39, as he escaped from Belgrade's sticky heat in a tree-shaded outdoor cafe. "Even though I never really liked (Djindjic) much, he did a great thing for the Serb people."
Kostunica, meanwhile, was favoring long debates, making overtures to Milosevic's supporters -- and daring to suggest that the indicted ex-president had rights, too.
A moderate Serb nationalist known for his leaden oratory and the dark circles under his eyes, Kostunica urged caution. Taking the time to offer legal protections to those wanted by the tribunal, he argued, would strengthen Yugoslavia's fledgling democracy in the end.
Though it horrified firebrand democrats, Kostunica's position won him new friends. Milosevic's supporters have been switching sides and joining his center-right, nationalist-leaning Democratic Party of Serbia, turning it from what was recently a minor group into one of Serbia's largest and most influential political forces.
Thousands of die-hard Milosevic supporters, including Socialists and ultra-nationalist Radicals, have been chanting "We'll kill Djindjic" in recent protests. Few blame Kostunica for the extradition.
With approval ratings hitting 80 percent before the handover, Kostunica can afford to take a few hits on principle.
Some even empathized with his awkward revelations because they mirrored the mixed feelings that many in this country of 10 million have over the way in which Milosevic was handed over.
People like Zorica Vladisavljevic, 36, believe it set a bad precedent to violate the constitution and ship Milosevic off in secret -- all to meet a deadline imposed by outsiders.
Sitting by a Belgrade lake and watching her two children run in the grass, Vladisavljevic bitterly recalled how her standard of living plummeted during Milosevic's rule and complained that Serbs deserved a chance to try him themselves.
After all, she said, the Serbs would have made his life in prison far worse than anything he could face at the U.N. court in The Hague, Netherlands.
"I'm not sorry for him," she said. "He's in blood up to his neck. But I think Kostunica is right. It shouldn't have been done like this."
Still, while Kostunica's confidantes express admiration for his decision to stand up for his principles, they express concern that he lost ground to Djindjic politically by failing to beat him back. If the country's laws can be violated on high-profile issues, they argue, other matters can slide, too.
"It's like going back to the old days," said one Kostunica insider, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As if this internal struggle were not enough, Kostunica also faces a separate political crisis touched off by Milosevic's surrender -- one that threatens to drive Yugoslavia's two republics even further apart.
Trouble emerged when Cabinet members from Montenegro, Yugoslavia's smaller republic, pulled out of Kostunica's government to protest the extradition of their former staunch ally.
The government collapsed, forcing Kostunica to spend Milosevic's arraignment day holding consultations with potential new partners. If he fails, he may be forced into new elections.
Then there's the economy. The cash infusion pledged by the United States and others will stave off immediate collapse, but people who have endured 13 years of hardship have limited patience for their leaders trying to sort out economic reform.
Jovica Botic, a 27-year-old hat salesman, is certain he won't see any money.
"It would be good but I'm not hopeful," he said. "If one has lived through these last 10 years, you stop believing in politicians."