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

Pavkovic Under Threat

A spate of leaked documents, abrupt dismissals and political infighting suggest a Yugoslav army shake-up is imminent.
By Daniel Sunter

Leaders of ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, and Western governments are pressuring President Vojislav Kostunica to dismiss army chief General Nebojsa Pavkovic and other military top brass.

Kostunica inherited Pavkovic from former president Slobodan Milosevic, yet he has made no new senior military appointments since coming to power in October.

But after the extradition of Milosevic to The Hague and the discovery of Albanian mass graves on the outskirts of Belgrade, questions are being raised as to who in the army leadership was responsible for events in Kosovo in 1999.

Pavkovic's future is part of a wider political struggle between Kostunica and Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic over who will ultimately command the army's loyalty. While Kostunica relies on the military to remain in power, Djindjic controls the police through his close associate and DOS official Serbian police minister Dusan Mihajlovic.

Leaked reports and correspondance are the weapons in this new round of in-fighting. In June, the Serbian ministry of police, MUP, published documents that showed that army leaders held ultimate command of all security forces during the Kosovo war. Mihajlovic directly accused the military of hiding traces of war crimes.

Shortly afterward, Belgrade newspapers published a leaked document ordering military units to "clean up" terrain following a combat operation in Kosovo. It was signed by Pavkovic's close associate, General Vladimir Lazarevic, who then commanded the Third Army in Pristina.

Defending himself, Pavkovic claimed that Milosevic had decided that the military should coordinate all the security forces in Kosovo, but the decision was never implemented. The police had retained parallel mechanisms of command throughout.

He also recalled that the newly-elected chief of the public security department in the Serbian police, Sreten Lukic, had commanded Kosovo's police forces in 1999.

As the accusations flew, a fresh row broke out between President Kostunica and the Serbian government. In early June, General Ninoslav Krstic was abruptly fired from his post as commander of the Yugoslav joint security forces, JSF, in southern Serbia.

According to IWPR sources in the army, the dismissal was on the express order of the president, although the idea, allegedly, was Pavkovic's.

Krstic's dismissal particularly riled Nebojsa Covic, who held political control of the JSF. Covic, largely credited with restoring peace in the south this year, accused Pavkovic of talking Kostunica into dismissing Krstic for fear of losing his own command.

A year ago, Covic accused the army leadership of blocking the peace process in the south and not behaving in accordance with the security programme. At his urging, the Belgrade authorities created the JSF, with Krstic at its head.

This effectively created a parallel security apparatus that was not under the direct control of General Pavkovic and his associate General Vladimir Lazarevic. Krstic is considered close to the democratic forces in Serbia while Lazarevic is a known, hard-line Milosevic supporter.

As the peace process progressed, Krstic's well-trained units showed a high level of professionalism in carrying out their tasks. But the army high command continued to argue that the joint security forces were a temporary formation, that would be disbanded "after the crisis is over". All units would then return to the General Lazarevic's command in the Third Army.

The political allies of President Kostunica viewed the joint security forces as a potential Trojan horse through which Djindjic could take control over the army's best forces. A letter, allegedly sent by members of the JSF, appeared at the height of the uproar over Krstic's dismissal.

This letter, which was full of anti-Western rhetoric, expressed its authors support for the existing military leadership and threatened Krstic and Covic with death.

An IWPR source in the army denied the letter's authenticity, claiming that Krstic and Covic were greatly respected by soldiers in the joint security forces. "This is an attempt to deny all the positive things Covic and the JSF did in the south," said the source. "For the first time in ten years, we carried out combat operations in a different way. We had the image of good guys in front of the whole world. Someone wants to spoil that."

After the letter was published, DOS leaders unanimously called on president Kostunica to dismiss General Pavkovic, pointing out that reform of the army was impossible while he remained in command.

Simultaneously, the West sent signals to Kostunica that Pavkovic had neither the support of diplomats nor NATO. When General Michael Jackson flew into Belgrade at the end of June, he held meetings with Generals Krstic, Ljubisa Stojimirovic and Branko Krga - but not with Pavkovic.

Analysts saw Jackson's snub as a clear message to Belgrade that, if it wants to join NATO's programme Partnership for Peace, heads will have to roll among the army's general staff.

"Yugoslavia will never join the Partnership for Peace while its army is headed by people like General Lazarevic," a Western diplomat in Belgrade told IWPR. "He still sees Washington and NATO as enemies."

In a bid to fend off pressure from the DOS and NATO, President Kostunica re-appointed General Krstic to deputy commander of Covic's team in the south on 2 July. He will also take charge of the JSF on the Serbia-Kosovo border.

DOS sources says Kostunica knows that such a move is not enough and that he will soon have to take firm steps towards a root-and-branch reform of the army. But while he is prepared to shuffle the general staff, he does not want an army chief who is more loyal to Djindjic than to himself.

The most likely candidate to replace Pavkovic, sources say, is General Ljubisa Stojimirovic, former commander of special forces and current head of the military academy. He is considered loyal to Kostunica and has a good reputation in Western military circles.

Daniel Sunter is IWPR assistant project manager in Belgrade.