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Rise and Fall of Nebojsa Pavkovic

After surviving years of tumultuous Belgrade politics, the Serbian general has ended up in a Hague cell.
By Daniel Sunter

Serbian general Nebojsa Pavkovic’s first appearance this week before the Hague tribunal closes another chapter in the life of a man who has for years ridden the storm of Belgrade politics relatively unscathed.

As he stood before the court on April 28 to enter a not guilty plea, both the government and Pavkovic tried to paint his decision to surrender as the latest noble gesture in a long career that has seen him transformed from a loyal henchman of Slobodan Milosevic into an advocate of democratic reform and rapprochement with NATO.

Pavkovic is charged along with three other top Serbian army and police generals with four counts of crimes against humanity and one count of violating the laws and customs of war during the 1999 campaign to drive thousands of Kosovo Albanians from their homes following the start of NATO airstrikes. (Lazarevic Faces “Gruesome” Indictment (TU No 392, 04-Feb-05)

Vladimir Lazarevic and Sreten Lukic have already given themselves up, while Vlastimir Djordjevic is thought to be hiding in Russia. Following his indictment in October 2003, Pavkovic repeatedly announced that he would never surrender to the UN court.

The general’s change of heart came only after a warrant was issued for his arrest on separate charges in Serbia and as Belgrade faced mounting international pressure to secure his extradition.

His arrival in The Hague on April 25 coincided exactly with a deadline laid down by the European Union for the Serbian government to hand him over or give up on talks that could mark the country’s first step towards EU membership.

With characteristic bombast, however, Pavkovic described the decision to surrender as his “last sacrifice for his country”.

Pavkovic first came to prominence on January 9, 1998 when he took command of the Yugoslav army’s Pristina corps amid the first major armed clashes between Serbian security forces and Albanian rebels in Kosovo. On December 25 that year, he became commander of the Third Army, responsible for Kosovo and all of southern Serbia.

As fighting in Kosovo escalated, Pavkovic’s good looks and grandstanding ensured that his media profile followed the same trajectory, and he soon became the most famous general in Serbia.

His regular public appearances typically consisted of a mixture of up-to-date assessments of the security situation in Kosovo and pro-Milosevic propaganda, rounded off with a few emotive references to Kosovo’s status as a central component of Serb national identity.

“Albanian separatists have attacked our honour and our lives and existence in Kosovo, which has always been ours,” he said in a message to the Pristina corps in February 1999.

During the conflict in Kosovo, Pavkovic and his closest associate Lazarevic – who took the post of Pristina corps commander after Pavkovic was promoted – enjoyed great popularity within the ranks as a result of their regular trips to the front lines.

When NATO launched air strikes in March 1999 in an effort to bring an end to the brutal tactics employed by Serb forces against the Albanian population, Pavkovic was defiant. He told coalition chiefs that their troops should expect hell in Kosovo and that Belgrade would never surrender the “sacred territory”.

Like other regime officials at the time, Pavkovic claimed the outcome of the bombing – which saw the hurried withdrawal of Serbian forces and the deployment of NATO troops and UN administrators in Kosovo – as a victory.

“The United Nations ... are a guarantee of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country,” he told Serbian state television in June 1999.

At the end of the war, he was decorated by Milosevic and, in February 2000, Pavkovic’s close ties with the president earned him the top military post of chief of general staff.

Later that year, Pavkovic returned the favour and, in what was widely viewed as one of the top bootlicking gestures in modern Serbian history, on June 6, 2000 Milosevic was nominated by the army for the Order of National Hero award.

The military’s proposal read like a communist era tract. “His wisdom as a statesman and personal courage in conditions which seemed insurmountable…put him among the [kind of] statesmen and military leaders who are hard to find in recent world history,” it said.

During this period, Pavkovic continued to nurture his public image.

The personality cult that surrounded him peaked with the publication of “On the Media Front”, a compilation of interviews with the general interspersed with portraits – from Pavkovic at war, to Pavkovic enjoying fishing, painting and throwing knives.

During the presidential elections of 2000, he at first sided with Milosevic, but quickly changed his mind when the president was voted out and his regime toppled by civil protests after more than a decade of virtually unchecked power.

On the eve of the regime’s collapse, Pavkovic met with the winner of the election - Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, candidate Vojislav Kostunica - to offer his complete support.

Having been granted a second chance on the condition of loyalty to the new president, Pavkovic kept his post and later returned the favour by openly siding with Kostunica during conflicts with his main rival, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Despite repeated demands from the international community and the Serbian public, Kostunica continued to oppose changes in the army hierarchy, claiming that dismissals would destabilise the military and the state.

In the post-Milosevic era, Pavkovic underwent a complete makeover, and Milosevic and the war in Kosovo disappeared from his public statements. Instead, he stressed his dedication to the democratic process and the importance of integrating Belgrade into the international community.

But his gradual decline began when the Serbian media discovered that during the Milosevic era generals had secured prime real estate for themselves, and that a luxury villa was being built for Pavkovic in the elite residential suburb of Dedinje.

Also facing rumours that he could be indicted by the Hague tribunal, Pavkovic published another book – this time a compilation of military documents from the war in Kosovo apparently intended to show that the army and he himself had respected international conventions throughout.

According to a source in the Serbian authorities, it was fear of the indictment that then led Pavkovic to offer his support to Kostunica’s rival Djindjic, hoping the prime minister’s influence in Brussels and Washington might help his cause.

But the move proved misjudged and in June 2002, realising he had lost control of his favourite general, Kostunica sacked him. No one was irreplaceable, he said.

An attempt by Pavkovic to return to the political arena, by running as an independent candidate in presidential elections in late 2002, failed.

During the state of emergency imposed in Serbia following the assassination of Djindjic in March 2003, Pavkovic was arrested along with thousands of others as part of a crackdown on organised crime known as “Operation Sabre”. He was held in custody for almost three months before being released.

Later, following his indictment by the Hague tribunal, Pavkovic apparently felt sidelined by the establishment, telling the BETA news agency that he felt “lonely in [his] attempt to defend [Serbia] from accusations of war crimes in Kosovo”.

There then followed a game of cat-and-mouse with the Belgrade authorities, as the indicted Pavkovic continued to make appearances in public and even as a guest on television shows.

The general has often cited the fact that he suffers from an undisclosed serious illness as his reason for not wanting to go to The Hague. When police started looking for him – in the run-up to the date set by the EU for a feasibility study that would decide whether Serbia was in a position to begin talks on membership – he went underground.

A Serbian government source told IWPR that far from being a patriotic “sacrifice”, the deciding factor in Pavkovic’s eventual surrender was probably the news that a warrant had been issued for his arrest after he failed to turn up for routine questioning in connection with the attempted murder of Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, leader Vuk Draskovic.

“Since the Hague tribunal takes precedence over local courts, immediately after his arrest [on these charges] he would have gone to The Hague,” the source told IWPR.

“When police officers began questioning his friends and searching their houses, this helped him realise this was not a joke, and that he should take advantage of the opportunity and ‘surrender voluntarily’.”

Twelve indictees have arrived at The Hague from Belgrade in the last four months. Ten remain at large with eight assumed to be living on territories under Belgrade’s control.

Daniel Sunter is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade.

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