Doubts Over Serbian Police Allegiance

Confusion over who really controls Serbia's police forces adds to the tense atmosphere in Belgrade.

Doubts Over Serbian Police Allegiance

Confusion over who really controls Serbia's police forces adds to the tense atmosphere in Belgrade.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The Yugoslav Revolution threatened to unravel this week when Serbian government officials and politicians loyal to ousted president Slobodan Milosevic began to mount a comeback.


Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic, a Milosevic loyalist, announced on October 11 that he had taken over control of Serbian ministry of interior forces, MUP.


The statement came only two days after Vlajko Stojilkovic resigned from the post over opposition claims that he planned to crush the mass demonstrations which swept Vojislav Kostunica into power.


According to the Yugoslav constitution, the federal president has much less power and influence than the republican government, currently dominated by Milosevic loyalists.


Marjanovic's statement coincided with a breakdown in negotiations between representatives of Milosevic's Socialist Party, SPS, and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS. They appear to have reneged on an earlier agreement to hold republican-level elections in December.


News agencies also reported the Serbian authorities planned to retake control of Serbian state television and radio, which fell under the sway of DOS on October 5.


President Kostunica described the security situation in the country as "very complex". He called for the ministry of interior forces to fall into line with the new Yugoslav government.


Leading DOS politician Zoran Djindjic said on October 10 he believed the opposition controlled a major part of the police force, but warned Milosevic and his allies still ran the state security services. Djindjic claimed the secret police have resumed high-level surveillance and phone-tapping activities.


Police harassment of opposition activists also appeared to be back on the agenda. Djindjic's driver Cedomir Jovanovic was arrested on October 10 by eight police officers and detained for two hours.


Djindjic said taking control of the police and the MUP apparatus was a "sensitive matter" and could take time. In the meantime, he felt the public would not tolerate any attempt by them to act against the new administration.


But the question of who is in charge of the police remains unanswered. On the day Milosevic was deposed, officers remained largely neutral, even those from the elite anti-terrorist and special operations units. Some joined the demonstrations, but many simply returned to their bases.


Officially though the police fall under the command of the MUP, which is still controlled by Milosevic's SPS.


"The fact that police units did not want to shoot the citizens does not mean they are automatically under the control of the opposition, " warned a senior police source. "They still answer to the Serbian authorities."


On October 6, DOS announced crisis headquarters set up in all major towns across Serbia would take over their local police units. But to make that move official the opposition has to wrest the interior ministry from the SPS.


One of the DOS leaders Dragoljub Micunovic said on October 11 that the opposition had demanded the Serbian government relinquish control of the interior ministry in order to establish law and order in the country.


"We don't want to be in charge of the police to enable us to arrest people," he said." In this chaos, if we wanted to, we could do anything more easily without the police."


A senior MUP source said the police intended to limit their activities to routine tasks, such as traffic control and apprehending criminals, until the political crisis had sorted itself out.


Officers kept a very low profile in the immediate aftermath of the revolution - and when officers did start patrolling the streets in larger numbers again this week there was no sign of the riot gear characteristic of the Milosevic era.


Leader of the opposition Social Democratic Union Zarko Korac warned that Milosevic and his cronies were actively trying to prevent the formation of federal and republican governments to create an impression of anarchy in the country.


Such tactics, Korac said, were designed to legitimise SPS calls on the army and police to intervene and save the country from disorder brought about by the opposition. But a senior police source said the chances of officers heeding such appeals were "very slim". Most officers, he said, "do not want to participate in anything which would worsen an already tense situation."


Istvan Molner is a regular IWPR contributor.


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