COMMENT: Army Distances Itself From Milosevic

Vojislav Kostunica's election success forces Yugoslav army chiefs to reassess their loyalties

COMMENT: Army Distances Itself From Milosevic

Vojislav Kostunica's election success forces Yugoslav army chiefs to reassess their loyalties

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Yugoslav army support for the Milosevic regime appears to ebbing since opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica triumphed in the federal presidential poll.

This comes as something of a surprise, as in the run up to the September 24 elections, the army high command was clearly pro-Milosevic. The ballot results, though, appear to have had a sobering effect on the military establishment.

Just how far Milosevic can rely on the army and the regular police could be tested over the next few days.

On Tuesday the president ratcheted up the pressure on the opposition by warning of a government crack-down against "subversive activities". State media announced any activity which threatened personal security and property, disrupted traffic, hindered the operation of factories, schools and other institutions, would be dealt with according to the law.

But Milosevic's hold over the army and the regular police is clearly weakening. A majority of regular soldiers and officers voted for Kostunica on September 24, disgusted by poor salaries, inadequate accommodation, almost constant warfare and military defeat. Since the poll, police officers have backed off as popular protest has spread across Serbia.

Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, representatives to the Federal Election Commission, FEC, claim 80 per cent of army officers voted for Kostunica. Results from Herceg Novi and Tivat in Montenegro, constituencies dominated by military officers, show a majority voted against Milosevic.

Indeed sources inside the FEC say even a majority of Serbian ministry of interior special forces voted for Kostunica - a fact which probably contributed to the commission's decision to suspend the count on election night. Panic had clearly gripped Milosevic's inner circle.

What a contrast to the run-up to the presidential poll.

Army units in Montenegro had taken up positions a few days ahead of the ballot to coincide with a campaign rally by Milosevic in the northern Montenegrin town of Berane. Thousands of troops remained "in the field" after the president's departure.

The day before the election, the FEC instructed the army to keep order at polling stations. Military police interfered in the voting process, checking identity papers, telling voters who to vote for, intimidating and excluding DOS monitors and, in some instances, removing the ballot boxes when the polls closed.

The 7th and 4th Battalions of the military police form the backbone of Milosevic's security forces in Montenegro. Although officially part of the Yugoslav army, these units, numbering around 1,500 men, represent the military arm of the pro-Milosevic Socialist Peoples Party, SNP, led by federal prime minister Momir Bulatovic.

Three days after the elections, Yugoslav soldiers in Montenegro finally returned to barracks. For the first time since Milosevic called the election, the tense atmosphere in the tiny republic began to subside.

Army chiefs have now ordered conscripts enlisted this September be allowed to return home to vote in the second round of presidential elections on October 8. The move has surprised many as it limits Milosevic's ability to manipulate results coming from army barracks.

Milosevic's politicisation of the army dates back to the autumn of 1998 when General Dragoljub Ojdanic was brought in to replace chief of staff Momcilo Perisic. The process was completed in February 2000 when Ojdanic was replaced by General Nebojsa Pavkovic following the murder of Yugoslav defence minister Pavle Bulatovic.

The army then set about accusing the opposition of treason. During the NATO bombing campaign, opponents of the regime were imprisoned for "military offences". Early on in the election campaign, journalist Miroslav Filipovic was sentenced to seven years imprisonment by an army court.

Pavkovic's loyalty to Milosevic was soon felt in Montenegro. Yugoslav army bases in the republic were opened up to a pro-Milosevic television stations, Yu-Info and Peoples TV. The stations operated illegally without the necessary licences from the Montenegrin authorities. Programming touted the SNP and JUL line against the Montenegrin leadership.

Pavkovic attended Milosevic's campaign rally in Berane. While in Pozarevac to promote his book, the general told the opposition, "September 24 is D-day for the preservation of independence".

But now the votes are counted, Pavkovic is more reticent about his support for Milosevic.

In an interview with the foreign press, he adopted a markedly neutral stance. Moreover, since the poll he's been curiously reluctant to appear in public. While commander of the Third Army Pristina Corps, Pavkovic went out of his way to court publicity.

His only post-election engagement, a ceremony at the Belgrade Military Academy, turned into a public relations disaster. Milosevic turned up at the event unexpectedly. Of the three thousand parents gathered to watch their sons receive awards, only a hundred or so applauded the president's arrival.

The president, it appears, can no longer trust Pavkovic. The general has his own interests and career to consider. The Yugoslav army's actions over the next days and weeks will be determined by the attitude of its soldiers and officers. It is unlikely even Pavkovic would act on an order to send troops onto the streets.

Interestingly, Pavkovic, despite being commander of the Third Army in Kosovo during the recent conflict, was not indicted by The Hague tribunal. Many suspect this was a deliberate ploy by the West to keep at least some doors open within the Milosevic camp.

Worse still for Milosevic are the increasing signs of disarray among the regular police. In Backa Palanka in northern Serbia, 15 policemen refused to act against protestors. At the Kolubara mine, officers withdrew after locals turned up droves. In Bor eastern Serbia, police backed off when demonstrators threatened to rush them. In Prokuplje, officers refused to intervene when residents took over the local television station.

But the president does have his "praetorian guard", several thousand paramilitary troops, men with blood on their hands from previous wars, who can expect little should Milosevic fall.

The Yugoslav army and regular police have little time for these units. These paramilitaries would probably open fire on civilian crowds without a second thought, but they are unlikely to survive a conflict with the army and police.

Goran Vesic is chief of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia election commission in Montenegro.

Serbia, Kosovo
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