Serbia: Djindjic Red Beret Dilemma

Zoran Djindjic risks losing American financial aid if he fails to end a revolt by special forces.

Serbia: Djindjic Red Beret Dilemma

Zoran Djindjic risks losing American financial aid if he fails to end a revolt by special forces.

Rebellious special forces have vowed to continue their protest after the Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic punished them for their march on Belgrade.

The protest, which began last week, followed their outrage at being used to arrest two men who later turned out to be war crimes indictees.

Djindjic earlier this week refused to accept their demands - the principal one being an end to cooperation with The Hague - and moved to punish them for their actions by withdrawing their secret service status.

In response, the Red Berets, wearing black masks and brandishing submachine guns, on Thursday took control of a road that leads to their base in Kula, Vojvodina. The message was clear: cut off ties with the tribunal or face a direct challenge from Serbia's most elite and notorious police unit.

The outcome of the current stand off is not yet known. What's clear though is that the Red Beret's action has escalated Djindjic's, until now low-level, battle with the anti-Hague lobby.

Much is at stake: Hague chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte visited Belgrade last month, bringing with her a list of 200 names she wishes to investigate.

Of those, 50 are members of the Red Berets - so the unit is not only fighting arrests and extraditions in general, it is trying to protect its own people from Hague prosecutors.

At the same time, substantial economic aid for Serbia is entirely contingent on continued cooperation with the tribunal.

The protest started as Djindjic returned from a trip to Washington, deemed the most important visit to the US by a Serbian leader since Milosevic visited Dayton to negotiate the end of the Bosnian war in November 1995.

The ground for the visit was laid carefully. In keeping with the wishes of the international community, Belgrade has ordered Kosovo Serbs to participate in Saturday's elections in the province.

The arrest of the two war crimes suspects - the Banovic twins - which sparked the Red Berets' revolt took place on the eve of Djindjic's talks with the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden Jr.

After the meeting last Thursday, Biden commented that "Serbia is on track to becoming a partner of the United States and America should fulfil its obligations in terms of economic aid, now Djindjic's actions have started to bear fruit".

Indeed, Djindjic left Washington with a clutch of promises which come close to fulfilling Serb economists' wildest dreams. The US has pledged to help reduce the current Yugoslav debt from 12.5 billion to seven billion dollars.

The administration has promised to make a representation to the Paris Club of Creditors - whom Belgrade owes 4.6 billion dollars - requesting that the UK, Japan and France offer Yugoslavia favourable conditions for writing off old debts. This would in turn send a signal to the London Club, whom Belgrade owes 2.6 billion dollars.

Indeed, during the Paris Club of Creditors meeting with the Yugoslav delegation on Friday, it was decided that around 66 per cent of Yugoslav debts would be written off.

Such a rescheduling is essential if Yugoslavia is to avoid another debt crisis, which would further damage the economy by alienating potential investors. Aside from the debts themselves, Yugoslavia already has a 1.1 billion dollar trade deficit this financial year.

In addition, Djindjic secured 115 million dollars of aid for next year. Washington also offered to cut Yugoslavia's scheduled debt repayment for next year by half, meaning that only 21 million dollars would be deducted from the aid, instead of 42 million.

However, Belgrade will receive not a cent until March 31, 2002, by which time the government must have demonstrated its full cooperation with The Hague, plus a withdrawal of support from the institutions of Republika Srpska - particularly the army -and a positive commitment to respect minority rights.

Djindjic promised Washington that all war crimes suspects would be extradited to The Hague by March 31. On his return, he took immediate steps to try and quash the anti-Hague rebellion.

He refused to remove police minister, Dusan Mihajlovic, whose resignation was one of the Red Berets' key demands and he transferred authority for the unit away from the secret service to the regular police service. At a stroke, this change has robbed the special forces of their autonomy and exclusive status.

Any members of the unit resisting the move would be sacked, he said, and if the entire unit resists it will be disbanded.

As a concession, Goran Petrovic, the Red Beret chief who ordered the arrests which sparked the protest, has been sacked along with his deputy Zoran Mijatovic. On Wednesday, sources close to the unit told IWPR that they were dissatisfied with Djindjic's orders and that the whole unit was debating whether or not to continue their protest.

The next day they issued a statement rejecting the proposed changes and warning there will be no compromise over their original demands.

These included a call to stop all arrests until the Yugoslav parliament passes an extradition law, plus an assurance that Red Berets would not be required to carry out such "unpatriotic acts" in the future.

So the battle lines have been drawn, leaving the Red Berets to decide what their next move will be. Their actions will in part be influenced by how much support they believe they can rally from the wider ranks of the police and army.

Observers believe that Djindjic's tough stance is based on his belief that this is a battle he can win. Despite its latent opposition to cooperation with The Hague, it seems unlikely that the Yugoslav army would support a police unit against the Serbian government - especially knowing that the bounty on offer from Washington means that such an action would not enjoy widespread public support.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a journalist with the Belgrade weekly Blic News

Serbia, Kosovo
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