Comment: All Change for Serbia-Montenegro Military

Country’s army reforms are on the right track, defence ministry adviser says.

Comment: All Change for Serbia-Montenegro Military

Country’s army reforms are on the right track, defence ministry adviser says.

The new defence ministry set up as part of the union between Serbia and Montenegro has only been in existence for two months, but already it has made great strides towards reform of the military and integration with the rest of Europe.

The defence ministry came into being at a very difficult time for Serbia. The assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic caused immense political turbulence, and it is still hard to say just how far-reaching its consequences will be. But one immediate outcome is the war on organised crime. The positive energy this has generated is feeding into change at the defence ministry.

The commitment to change comes from the top. Defence Minister Boris Tadic is the deputy head of the Democratic Party, DS, the leading partner in Serbia’s governing coalition. Military reform is also driven by the priority goal of accession to the NATO Partnership for Peace programme, PfP. Admission to PfP would serve as confirmation that the government as a whole is serious about reform. It would also fill a problematic void in the Euro-Atlantic security system.

Tadic’s ministry is under no illusions that reform will come easily. In part that is because of the legacy of neglect. Over the last decade Yugoslav defence ministers have displayed little enthusiasm for the affairs of their ministry. That set a tone that allowed the defence ministry to be marginalised within government.

Civilian control of the army is seen as central to efforts to make it an integral component of a new, democratic Serbia-Montenegro, and Tadic’s recent efforts have focused on this.

One key step has been moving the security and intelligence services away from the army’s general staff and making them directly subordinate to the defence ministry. While there will be no wholesale dismissals, security and intelligence personnel will from now on be required to pass competency examinations. The atmosphere will be further improved by the recent dismissal of military security chief Aco Tomic, who has been linked to a series of political scandals over the past two years.

Another noteworthy move is the transformation of the army general staff into a unit within the defence ministry. For the past decade, it has occupied an ambiguous slot on the organisational chart, with semi-direct accountability to the state leadership. Now it has been incorporated into the larger defence structure like any other component.

And as part of the larger governmental effort to tackle corruption and crime, the ministry has launched an investigation into the alleged participation of some senior military officers in illicit activity. Details on the investigation, including the names of those implicated in crime, will be released to the public in the near future.

The defence ministry has also been busy reaching out to regional and global security partners. Ministry officials recently visited the Slovak armed forces, and a bilateral military agreement has been signed with Belgium. In addition, the ministry is conducting an exhaustive assessment of the army, and it will share the findings with a NATO delegation that is expected shortly. A special department has been set up to facilitate accession to the PfP programme. And the United Nations Development Programme is offering guidance on how to reorganise the administrative functions to achieve greater efficiency and clarity.

One of the main objectives is to gain a better understanding of military spending. Army reforms conducted in 2001-02 centred on reducing the overall size of the military and cutting out inefficiencies and waste. That downsizing will continue. The plan is to cut forces from 78,000 to 50,000. The ministry will also keep a keen eye on how better to target resources. This may mean more spending on modernisation and on neglected social services for the military.

But true reform also requires a transformation of values within the army and the defence establishment, as well as a concerted effort to build a transparent relationship with the public. The defence ministry plans to work hard at this in the coming months and years.

While Tadic and his staff mainly have backgrounds in the anti-Milosevic opposition, many of the former dictator’s coterie remain in positions of influence in the military. True reform will call for a significant shake-up here. There must be bold new leadership if the army is to move away from the past and shape a new image. Minister Tadic will therefore be actively seeking out former senior-ranking officers who have the ability to take this work on. This is no easy task, given that Belgrade’s new leaders had few friends in the top brass when they were still in opposition.

There are many other obstacles facing Tadic’s team. For example, if Serbia-Montenegro is to join PfP it needs to begin pulling together the compliance evidence and legal paperwork required. Among other things, NATO will want to see written proof that civilian control over the army and security apparatus is a reality.

The country dragged its feet on this in 2002, although the reasons have less to do with obstruction from the military than with politics. For one thing, prior to the formal creation of Serbia-Montenegro and the assassination of Djindjic, the governing parties in both republics were preoccupied with daily political rivalries and election preparations, and showed little interest in technical matters of security-sector reform.

The union between the two republics provides impetus for speedier compliance. Although the union may be redefined in a referendum scheduled for 2006, for the moment Montenegro’s leadership is content to continue the tradition of joint armed forces. The position taken by Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic and his government represents a compromise between their desire for an independent state and pragmatic efforts to put an end to crisis in the region. In addition, the cash-strapped Montenegrin government recognises the benefits of having a single defence establishment to pay for.

Serbia-Montenegro faces unique problems as it moves towards PfP compliance. In addition to the complexities thrown up by political union, we are still weighed down by our recent history of isolation, and by the consequences of the 1999 war with NATO which mean Belgrade has to meet certain conditions imposed by the international community.

Compliance necessarily requires a change of mindset. This is most problematic when it comes to the remnants of the conservative Milosevic-era officer corps who still remain in post. Many of them fear change and are wary of any engagement with the outside world. Fortunately, most lower-ranking officers are convinced that the PfP programme is necessary for their survival. But at the moment these more modern-thinking officers have few opportunity to move up the ranks.

Cooperation with the war crimes tribunal remains the biggest unresolved issue that could obstruct entry to PfP. The new political and military leadership in Serbia-Montenegro is determined to establish close collaboration with the court. It is hoped that this will go a long way to alleviating widespread concerns among army personnel that they could face eventual charges, based on command responsibility, for war crimes.

The central sticking point is the long-time presence in Serbia of the former Republika Srpska army commander, General Ratko Mladic, who is one of The Hague’s most wanted indictees. Until Milosevic was ousted in October 2002, Mladic made no effort even to hide, and indeed had quite an obvious presence in a Belgrade suburb. Although he then went underground, he maintained contact with some elements of the military establishment here.

According an investigation which the ministry has carried out, as well as reports from the military security service, Mladic last contacted members of the army on May 15, 2002. After that date all trace of him was lost. The ministry has issued an order stipulating that all army members are obliged to officially report any meeting or contact with any tribunal indictee. We have thus eliminated the possibility that there could be any official contact with such individuals. Collective responsibility for such contact has been turned into individual responsibility.

In another noteworthy step, the defence ministry has launched a joint effort with the federal foreign ministry’s commission for cooperation with the Tribunal, to review and establish the authenticity of documents that could potentially prove Mladic’s involvement in the mass murder of prisoners in Srebrenica in 1995.

In the meantime, the ministry has dissolved the general staff commission for cooperation with The Hague, because an investigation has shown that the team was actually assisting Milosevic’s defence by supplying him with archive documents. The head of this commission, General Zlatoje Terzic, has been sent into retirement.

It is an ambitious start based on a busy and rewarding two months. The ministry recognises that much more remains to be done. But it is optimistic that the public in Serbia-Montenegro – and the European family as a whole - will soon see real results and benefits from our reforms.

Bojan Dimitrijevic is an adviser on military reforms to Serbia-Montenegro defence minister Boris Tadic.

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