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

Parties Wrestle Over Serbia's Secret Police

Desire to control once-feared agency remains tempting to many democratic politicians.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Leading parties in Serbia’s pro-democracy bloc, which will form the new government, are jostling for a say in who controls the once-feared secret police force, known as the Security Information Agency, BIA.


The BIA’s current chief, Misa Milicevic, though a political appointee, successfully distanced the agency from political control, but since the December 2003 election some party leaders have started demanding a direct say.


Experts on the agency in Belgrade claim their diverging interests may leave the agency at a crossroads, with one road leading towards more democratic accountability, and another back towards politicisation and potential abuse.


The most direct claim to a say in the BIA emerged in February from the royalist coalition – the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, and New Serbia, NS – not least because the SPO leader, Vuk Draskovic, was the target of two failed assassination attempts in 1999 and 2000 in which the secret police was implicated.


After other parties in the pro-democracy bloc - the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, and the liberal G17 Plus - ruled this out, Draskovic demanded the post of deputy director instead.


However, the widespread belief is that the last word on the BIA’s new bosses will come from the DSS, as this is the largest party in the bloc and led the drive against the abuse of the secret police for political purposes under the Milosevic regime, and later.


While the Belgrade media has reported that the top post may go to Rade Bulatovic or Gradimir Nalic, both advisors to Vojislav Kostunica, the DSS leader, Bulatovic on February 23 denied he had been offered the post.


He added that politicians no longer needed to express such interest in the position as it did not have the power that it used to. “The secret police will only do its job and will be controlled by parliament,” he said.


The politicians’ demands have stirred an unprecedented public debate over the BIA’s future. Some support the idea that it should be treated as part of the legitimate political booty awarded to whichever parties win the elections, even though that would mean abandoning the tentative reforms of the organisation. The others are advocating its total depoliticisation.


In the past, the secret police functioned as an essential pillar of the regime and as a power in its own right. Then known as the Serbian State Security Service, RDB, it was one of the main agents Milosevic employed to carry out his war plans, liaise with organised crime and keep political dissidents in check.


The RDB is also thought to have been responsible for the murder of Ivan Stambolic, former Serbian president and one-time rival to Milosevic, and for the attempts on the life of the SPO leader.


The fall of the Milosevic in October 2000 did not terminate the agency’s political activities. By helping the opposition to topple the regime, a key section of the secret police secured its future within the new democratic order.


This put them in a position to block fundamental reforms of the organisation, which explains the government’s subsequent reluctance to launch any detailed investigation into the secret police’s role in the wars in the former Yugoslavia.


The investigation into abuses stopped at the arrest of the last chief of the RDB under Milosevic, General Radomir Markovic, and several members of the Red Berets – a commando unit within the secret police suspected of attempting to kill Draskovic.


Bozidar Prelevic, a former police co-minister, says the new political elite had an additional motive for preserving the service as it was – which was to use it against their rivals in the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition.


Prelevic, a member of the NGO Lex, which drew up legal proposals to place the agency under parliament’s control, believes the reform failed for that reason. “The project was halted because the law included a developed system of control over the secret police,” he said. “No one wanted that.”


However, the informal alliance between the new authorities and the surviving old elements in the service broke down under the demands from the international community for Belgrade to meet its obligations to the Hague war crimes tribunal.


A crisis emerged in November 2001 when the authorities faced open mutiny from the Red Berets and their former commander Milorad “Legija” Lukovic, following the extradition of war crimes suspects to The Hague.


Instead of crushing the revolt, the government gave in to the mutineers, granting the post of deputy RDB chief to Milorad Bracanovic, a close Legija ally.


The government gained little in the long run, for Bracanovic was arrested in connection with the murder of the prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, in March 2003 - though he was later released without charges.


The appointment of Misa Milicevic as the head of BIA in January 2003 was the first sign that Djindjic was finally prepared to take on Legija and Serbia’s uncontrollable and deeply politicised underworld.


Police experts say Milicevic used the crisis over Djindjic’s assassination to take the first step towards distancing the agency from the influence of organised crime and politics.


Sources close to BIA have admitted to IWPR that the reform process is far from over, although about half the force has been replaced since October 2000.


“The problem is that the BIA has changed to a greater extent than most politicians who speak about it in public have recognised,” a source said.


Dobrivoje Radovanovic, head of the Belgrade Criminology Institute, says media speculation about the BIA chiefs has harmed the reform of the agency and damaged national security. “Not many educated people in the BIA would agree to work there if every change of government meant uncertainty in their job,” he said.


Radovanovic underscored that the agency had undergone significant changes over the last year alone and was a different force from Milosevic’s secret police.


An IWPR source in the BIA said the agency no longer even contained a section working on the surveillance of internal political enemies and that last year’s elections marked the first in which the secret police had made no effort to influence the outcome.


Bozidar Prelevic told IWPR that the next police minister Dragan Jocic, a deputy leader of the DSS, had shown great interest in Lex’s draft law on parliamentary control of the secret services while he was in opposition.


But the agency’s future remains uncertain. Still without any firm regulation or a system of accountability - and following the years of abuse - the fate of the BIA still lies with the politicians.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR correspondent.


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