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

Serbia: Pavkovic Changes Sides

The Yugoslav president's control over the army has been seriously shaken.
By Daniel Sunter

Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic has received a huge boost with the recent defection into his ranks of a leading backer of the Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica.


The decision by army chief of staff, Nebojsa Pavkovic, to switch allegiances has denied Kostunica the one institution over which he had been able to exercise absolute authority.


Pavkovic, 56, seems convinced only Djindjic can shield him from a future inquiry into his role in the 1999 Kosovo conflict.


The army chief's defection prompted Kostunica to try to dismiss him on two occasions in the last 10 days, during the sessions of the Yugoslav supreme defence council - the body with overall control of the army


He was prevented from doing so by two Djindjic allies: the Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic and his Serbia counterpart, Milan Milutinovic.


Although Djindjic insisted for two years that Pavkovic be removed from office, he is now ensuring that the army chief stays.


Kostunica's loss of control over the army will weaken him in the win-or-lose battle he is waging with Djinjdic over political supremacy.


Sources close to the Serbian government claim than Kostunica now only maintains control over the army's security service, which is also the federal force's strongest anti-Hague lobby.


But he cannot hope to enjoy their long-term support as the Yugoslav parliament is drafting a law on reforming the security service. This legislation, whose adoption is expected in a month or two, foresees it being placed under federal parliamentary control.


Djindjic does not intend to support Pavkovic's retention as chief of staff for long, as the international community insists that he leaves.


But the Serbian premier is postponing the army chief's dismissal simply to prevent Kostunica from choosing a loyal man to step in.


The logjam over the new military supremo has thrown the federal forces into turmoil and is seen as a grave setback for the anti-Hague lobby on the eve of planned arrests of key war crimes suspects.


President Kostunica and Pavkovic used to be close allies. After inheriting him from Slobodan Milosevic, Kostunica kept him in his post against objections from Serbia's ruling coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, and the international community.


Pavkovic commanded Yugoslavia's armed forces in Kosovo during the NATO bombing and has headed the military since early 2000. A Milosevic loyalist, he was seen as pragmatic. In the Belgrade demonstrations of October 5 2000, which toppled the Milosevic regime, Pavkovic dumped his patron. Refusing to open fire on the protesters, he took the side of Kostunica, then the DOS presidential candidate.


He has since shown Kostunica constant loyalty, while the Yugoslav president has praised Pavkovic for several army reforms and said his dismissal would only destabilise the army.


Pavkovic's change of loyalty became clear at a March 25 session of the supreme defence council, where Kostunica tried to sack him as a prelude to replacing him with his more recent favourite, General Aco Tomic, the head of military security.


The president asked two other members of the council, Milutinovic and Djukanovic, to back his request. They refused, holding Tomic responsible for the recent arrest on spying charges of the Serbian deputy prime minister Momcilo Perisic.


The fact that Pavkovic has truly allied with Djinjdic is evident from remarks the premier made to B92.


"I simply don't understand why Kostunica asked that the army chief of staff be removed from office," he said. "It's rather ironic that Kostunica wants to remove Pavkovic in order to please the West and at the same time is objecting to Hague extraditions which the West is demanding.


The first sign that Pavkovic would change sides followed Perisic's arrest on March 14 on charges of handing confidential military information to American diplomats.


While Kostunica praised Tomic's men for the action, Pavkovic complained to the Belgrade daily Politika that he had been kept in the dark until the arrest was completed.


"It is important to establish why I was not informed. Had I been informed on this operation, we would have avoided some of the disputed issues that now cast a shadow on an operation that was carried out extremely well," he said on March 24.


Pavkovic was also influenced in his calculations by mounting western pressure for his dismissal, coupled with an announcement from the tribunal chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, that The Hague is preparing a new list of war crimes suspects from former Yugoslavia.


The army chief has also come under attack in the Belgrade media for the purchase and construction of luxury apartments and villas under shady circumstances.


Government sources suggest this combination of pressures led Pavkovic to take the side of the one man he believes may protect him from eventual extradition to The Hague - the Serbian prime minister.


These sources say Pavkovic appeared at a private party given by Djindjic at the beginning of the year, sending a clear signal that he was courting the premier's favour.


None of these manoeuvres will help him keep his post in the long term. The dismissal of the men behind Serbia's war in Kosovo is widely seen as an essential pre-condition for Yugoslavia's integration into NATO's Partnership for Peace programme.


Djindjic's strategy will not be to prolong Pavkovic's term in office, but to stall his dismissal in order to force Kostunica to appoint a military chief less hostile towards the tribunal.


Pavkovic probably isn't counting on staying on in his post much longer anyway. It will be enough for him if Djindjic defends him against an eventual investigation into his past.


Daniel Sunter is IWPR's coordinating editor in Serbia.