Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Army Disaffection Grows

Detiorating conditions in the Yugoslav Army have prompted some of its ablest soldiers to quit.
By Daniel Sunter

The Yugoslav Army has sought to quell soldiers' disillusionment and anger over poor conditions and substandard military equipment.


Chief-of-Staff, Neobojsa Pavkovic, has dispatched senior officers to try to diffuse the unrest and appointed General Bozidar Delic, as commander of the Belgrade Corps in an effort to tighten discipline in units based in the capital.


Soldiers complain that pay and training is inadequate while military equipment is either faulty or in short supply.


The most stinging criticism to date has come from the Lieutenant Colonel Slobodan Peric, an air force pilot shot down last year by NATO missiles because, he claimed, his MiG-29 had been fitted with faulty radar equipment. The plane crashed in Bosnia before either pilot had a chance to fire a single shot.


Peric, interviewed by the magazine Svedok, was also critical of the battle readiness of his co-pilot, "My wingman had not flown MiGs for five or six months and this was his first night flight of the year."


A source close to the army leadership said the Peric interview "contained more truth than all the official military announcements to date." The source added, "this is the first time someone has said openly: Yes, I was brave, I took off against a much stronger opponent, with insufficient training and a faulty aircraft."


Members of the crack 63rd Parachute Brigade, the Yugoslav equivalent of the British SAS, have also voiced dissatisfaction with their senior commanders. One brigade soldier claims Pavkovic turned the unit into a personal security force.


"First he removed us from the air force structure and amalgamated us into his 3rd Army. We became infantry soldiers," the soldier said. "Then he took the best guys in the unit to be his personal bodyguards. You can see these guys following his wife around Belgrade's boutiques while she does her shopping."


The same soldier said the army's failure to invest in the unit forced many of its members to quit, "One of our best men gave up and now works as a taxi-driver."


Another member of the special forces claims many of the military's ablest troops have left because of deteriorating conditions. "Some went abroad, others set up security agencies. Some moved over to the police, others became athletes," the soldier said. "These men wanted to create a modern and serious institution out of the military, but they received nothing in return. No salaries, no flats, no training grounds, no equipment."


Disillusionment has prompted many solidiers to sympathise with opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. One soldier from Belgrade said men in his unit were "exhilarated" when they saw TV pictures of the large turn out for the opposition rally last month.


"Only a couple of days before," the soldier went on, "I saw a group of officers secretly reading the independent daily newspaper Blic hidden inside the pro-government daily Politika. It was funny to see, but also very sad."


The military leadership certainly seems aware of the mood within the lower ranks and has taken steps to quell disaffection.


Army headquarters have reportedly despatched senior officers to barracks to lecture wayward soldiers. In one visit, officers criticised opposition politcal parties for acting against the national interest and violating the combat readiness of the army.


"It all sounded like a press release from the [ruling coalition] Socialist Party of Serbia or the Yugoslav Left," one soldier said.


In another attempt to tighten discipline, Pavkovic has appointed his wartime comrade, General Bozidar Delic, as commander of the Belgrade corps.


Meanwhile, the VJ's top officers vie with one another over their loyalty to Milosevic. Milorad Obradovic, commander of the 2nd Army, which is stationed in Montenegro, made a speech on national television, which closely resembled a recent Milosevic address.


In April, Pavkovic announced plans to modernise anti-aircraft defences and reinforce VJ special forces. The general also promised to preserve at any price the "constitutional order", in effect, Milosevic's grip on power.


Daniel Sunter is a journalist with the VIP agency in Belgrade.