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

Comment: Yugoslav Army Future in Doubt

Many generals fear their status and privileges could soon be about to crumble.
By Daniel Sunter

The army's scathing reaction to a recent IWPR article on possible reforms has highlighted the top brass' very real concerns over the future of the military.


After decades of privilege under Tito's communist regime, the Yugoslav army has seen its status and influence slip since the break up of former Yugoslavia. Apart from a brief resurgence during the Milosevic era, this once-mighty institution is now being seen as out of touch and badly in need of reform.


The IWPR analysis "Yugoslav Generals to Resist Army Reform", published in Balkan Crisis Report No. 402, received a lot of attention from the Serbian media - and also prompted an unexpectedly harsh reaction from the military.


An unnamed representative of the general staff told the Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti on January 11 that the IWPR analysis was "scandalous, and we see it as an attack on the army. The general staff assesses that these are new ultimatums issued to our country and pressure aimed at undermining the only institution that continues to be a factor of stability."


The IWPR article focused on the possibility that, with the creation of the new state of Serbia and Montenegro, their respective prime ministers would take control of the army and introduce changes in its structure and personnel.


The reaction from the federal forces would suggest that some factions within its leadership are truly scared by the prospect of reforms by Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic and his Montenegrin counterpart Milo Djukanovic.


The political power vacuum in Serbia following the failure of two presidential ballots has exacerbated the feeling of nervousness among the top brass.


Control of the army has so far been in the hands of Djindjic's main political rival, federal president Vojislav Kostunica, who saw the military and its leaders as important allies and therefore was reluctant to try to reform it following the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000.


As a result, the army has survived as the last state institution untouched by political, structural and personnel changes, and has continued to enjoy the privileges and the social influence built over the last decades.


The federal forces grew out of former Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito's partisan units. And from the founding of the communist Yugoslavia in 1945 until its break up in 1990, it represented one of the main symbols of the state.


Tito's concept of "brotherhood and unity" was reflected in the army, where soldiers from all Yugoslav republics came to do their military service.


The high regard in which the army was held ensured that its top brass enjoyed a range of privileges until Yugoslavia began to disintegrate.


When the Berlin Wall fell and the first multi-party elections were called across former Yugoslavia, the generals tried to preserve the old regime by forming a Communist Alliance movement for Yugoslavia, and forcing officers to join the party.


The army's efforts to preserve the single-party system failed. And when the country began to break up, Milosevic used the military to try to force secessionist minded republics to remain in the federation - but to no avail.


At the same time, most of the Slovene, Croat and later Bosniak officers left the federal forces to join their respective national armies, leaving the Yugoslav military largely Serbian.


Milosevic then invested heavily in the Serbian police force, gradually marginalising the army, which he regularly purged of anyone who was opposed to his politics.


But the federal forces effectively came in from the cold in 1998, when unrest in Montenegro and Kosovo prompted Milosevic to realise that the police alone would not be sufficient to enforce his policies.


The war in Kosovo and clashes with NATO in 1999 marked army's revival. Together with Milosevic, they were presented as heroes.


With the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999, and in the atmosphere of growing anti-Milosevic feelings in Serbia, the president gave the army a role that had previously been strictly reserved for the Serbian police - the keepers of the regime.


Leading generals attended receptions organised by Milosevic's party and publicly engaged in political life - openly criticising opposition parties and speaking out against Djukanovic.


Just before the Milosevic regime was overthrown on October 5, 2000, the top brass openly threatened to stand in the way of any attempts to stage a coup.


However, the army leaders' loyalty to Milosevic was not enough to save him. The expected military intervention did not take place because lower-ranking officers refused to use weapons against their own people.


Milosevic was gone - but the military leaders did not fall with him. They offered their loyalty to Kostunica, who was looking for support in his increasingly bitter fight with Djindjic.


Kostunica is due to step down over the next few weeks, and the federal forces see this as the withdrawal of their last true patron.


Some officers regard it as a positive thing - a chance for much-needed reforms to finally happen, and for it to join the Euro-Atlantic integration processes.


However, for others, it may mean a loss of the privileges they currently enjoy, or even redundancy.


Daniel Sunter is IWPR's coordinating editor in Belgrade.