Axe to Fall on Yugoslav Army Old Guard?

Sacking of conservative military security chief may be a sign authorities are serious about purging pro-Milosevic officers blocking cooperation with West

Axe to Fall on Yugoslav Army Old Guard?

Sacking of conservative military security chief may be a sign authorities are serious about purging pro-Milosevic officers blocking cooperation with West

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The new government of Serbia-Montenegro has fired the country's hard line military security chief, General Aco Tomic, in what is being hailed as a major step towards clearing out politically compromised officials and speeding up integration into NATO's Partnership for Peace Programme.

On March 21, the Supreme Defence Council, VSO - comprising the acting presidents of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro Natasa Micic and Filip Vujanovic, respectively; the new federal defence minister, Boris Tadic; and the joint president of Serbia-Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic - decided to remove Tomic.

Tomic's sacking showed the new state leadership was moving decisively against top military figures close to former Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica who have been compromised by political scandals.

They are seen as a major stumbling block towards cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal, ICTY, which is a pre-condition for Belgrade's integration into NATO's Partnership for Peace Programme, PfP, and other international institutions.

The new federal leaders indicated changes in army personnel were about to follow in their first public statements. On March 20, Marovic pointedly told the Podgorica daily Vijesti that the army should consist of people "who believe their prospects lie in the future, not in the past".

"You won't help people if you say we should not cooperate with The Hague. If there are such people in the army and we encounter them, they will be replaced," he said.

Since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, the personnel structure of the Yugoslav forces (now the Army of Serbia and Montenegro) had remained virtually untouched. Instead of ditching the old guard and reforming the institution, Kostunica maintained the status quo.

The former federal president retained Milosevic's close associate, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, at the helm for more than two years, and established close ties with the anti-reform and anti-western military security service. In mid 2001, Kostunica appointed Tomic, another arch-conservative, as the latter's chief.

In return for supporting Milosevic's old allies, the military leadership lent Kostunica unqualified backing in his clashes with political rivals.

Reforms in the army had to be postponed until Kostunica withdrew from the presidency in 2003, when federal Yugoslavia was replaced by a new, looser union between Serbia and Montenegro.

After his political rivals came to power - all colleagues of the assassinated Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic and his Montenegrin ally, Milo Djukanovic - Marovic and Tadic announced a thorough reform of the army.

They said government priorities would be integration into the PfP programme and cooperation with the ICTY.

Many western officials believe leading war crime suspects, headed by the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, are hiding in Serbia under Yugoslav army protection.

Tadic told the media on March 21 he believed the Army of Serbia and Montenegro was not currently protecting any Hague fugitives but said an investigation would be launched into whether the military had ever been involved in harbouring them.

That same week, after the new federal cabinet was appointed, Tomic was dismissed. His name had repeatedly appeared in the Serbian media as the military figure with closest ties to Kostunica.

Sources close to the Belgrade government suggested the motive for his dismissal was to remove Kostunica's main foothold in the army and cleanse the military of the most serious opponents to The Hague.

Two major political scandals, which shook the Serbian government and aggravated relations with the United States, appeared to suggest Kostunica had used the military in his political clashes with his rivals.

Last year, without notifying either the general staff, the civilian police, or the government, army security arrested Serbia's deputy prime minister, Momcilo Perisic, and a US diplomat, John Neighbor, on suspicion of espionage and exchanging confidential military documents.

Ignoring international protocols and the government's policy of building closer ties with Washington - and acting as if the cold war was still raging - they blindfolded Neighbour and held him in custody for several hours.

The scandal ended with the diplomat's withdrawal and Perisic's dismissal, but questions continued to be asked about why the army had launched an operation of a type not seen even under the Milosevic regime.

One western diplomat complained that it showed a curious sense of priorities. "Instead of dealing with war crimes suspects like Ratko Mladic…the military security service and Kostunica were busy scoring political points in a Milosevic-like manner," he said, "presenting themselves as patriots, and their political rivals as traitors and western collaborators."

A second scandal erupted when Kostunica then sacked his army chief, Nebojsa Pavkovic, after concluding his once loyal ally was siding with his rivals. The dismissal followed Pavkovic's revelation that Tomic and Kostunica's advisers had planned to use army special forces to take over the Serbian Government Information Bureau, after deciding it was being used as a surveillance centre to bug Kostunica's office.

Pavkovic said a plan to use commandos in the operation was stopped only because he and other officers, who had been informed about it, had strongly opposed the proposal.

A third scandal arose over supplies of military equipment to Baghdad and maintenance of Iraqi technical equipment. The Belgrade media claimed that active army members were involved in this trade which western diplomats said could not have been organised without Tomic's knowledge.

None of these scandals was fully resolved. However, widespread international suspicions that military figures were directly, or indirectly, protecting Mladic created a strong impression in the West that Belgrade should not be trusted with full access to international institutions until it had put its armed forces in order and established full civilian control over them.

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