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Serbia: Soldiers' Deaths Haunt The Army

Army prestige will take a battering if an independent commission into their deaths differs from the military's own account.
By Pedja Obradovic

The death of two soldiers in the barracks of the Belgrade Topcider quarter has severely tarnished the reputation of the Army of Serbia and Montenegro and raised concerns about the future of desperately needed military reforms.


As the independent commission studying the deaths of Dragan Jakovljevic, 21, and Drazen Milovanovic, 21, prepares to issue its findings, it looks likely its conclusions will differ from those of an earlier military investigation.


IWPR has learnt that some commission members will say a third person was involved in the incident. This contradicts the army version, outlined by the military last week, which said the two soldiers killed each other in a duel.


Whatever the outcome, the shootings have eroded public confidence in the army, which - mid-way through a reform programme started three years ago - is suffering from budget cutbacks and squabbling by the Serbia and Montenegro political elite on the role of the joint armed forces in a crumbling state union.


“There is certainly fear as to what will happen, as the armed forces [already] cost too much and are falling apart,” former colonel-turned-military analyst Ljubodrag Stojadinovic told IWPR. “All the people dealing with the ultimate fate of the state union know [it is] heading towards disintegration. No one has managed or even wanted to prepare a strategy for the survival of the army at the time when the joint state is collapsing.”


The latest crisis began in early October when a routine army investigation into the deaths of Jakovljevic and Milovanovic concluded that Milovanovic killed Jakovljevic before turning the gun on himself.


Following public protests, the state union president, Svetozar Marovic ordered an independent commission under Bozo Prelevic to investigate. The military also continued with their own investigations.


In the meantime, feverish media speculation over the possible contents of these reports has increased public confusion. Repeated claims by the army that they do not believe a third person was involved have only fuelled suspicions of an army cover-up.


The Serbian press has speculated the soldiers were murdered by the bodyguards of a Hague indictee who was hiding in the facility they were guarding, possibly Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army chief now at the top of the Hague court’s wanted list.


Nebojsa Pavkovic, a former army chief of staff wanted by the Hague for crimes committed in Kosovo, has been named as possible suspect by Danica Draskovic, the formidable wife of state union foreign minister Vuk Draskovic and a political player in her own right. She thinks Pavkovic’s bodyguards are the killers.


In a comment in Srpska Rec, the mouthpiece of her husband’s Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, she accused them of shooting the soldiers and urged parents not to send their children to army service until the case is cleared up.


The army denies the charges but the media speculation has reopened the story of alleged war criminals hiding out in army bases in Serbia. Public interest was rekindled by the publication of a photograph from 2002 of Veselin Sljivancanin - indicted by the Hague court for crimes in eastern Croatia in 1991 - climbing into a military vehicle in a Serbian army barracks.


The picture was taken at a time when the indictment against him had long been made public and when senior Serbian military officials were denying that the army was protecting any war crimes suspects.


The army's initial investigation into the deaths of the soldiers said each had been hit with three bullets. Two bullets remained in the bodies, one in each, and ballistic experts found both were fired from Milovanovic's rifle – hence the army's conclusion that Milanovic killed his colleague and then himself. All bullets had been fired from rifles belonging Jakovljevic and Milovanovic.


No third party fired a shot, the investigators said, and the barracks' electronic security system did not record any unauthorised entries or exits that morning, ruling out civilians wandering into the scene of the crime.


However, the credibility of these initial findings was undermined last week by the army itself when its more detailed report reached a different conclusion, saying it now believed Jakovljevic killed Milovanovic, rather than the other way around.


A journalist and expert on military matters who asked not to be named said the investigators were unlikely to get to the bottom of the case. “No one will find out who murdered the soldiers unless someone involved speaks up,” the source said.


However, the incident has sapped public faith in the army and comes on the heels of other controversial incidents including the death of Dragan Kostic, who died in the army barracks in Leskovac on August 27 during a training accident. A recent poll showed overall confidence in the army had dropped from 71 per cent a year ago to 41 per cent.


This is a surprising development in Serbia, where the army – along with the Serbian Orthodox Church - traditionally enjoys high levels of public trust.


However, many resent it has not yet held anyone responsible for the latest tragedy. The defence minister simply transferred the commanders of Topcider including Colonel Radomir Cosic, commander of the Guard Brigade, and Marko Kovacevic, master sergeant in charge of the guards that morning, to other posts.


The latest controversy comes at a difficult time for the army, half way through the reform programme started by former state union defence minister Boris Tadic, now Serbia’s president.


As the long-term survival of the state union is by no means certain, a question mark also hangs over the institution that was established to protect it.


So far, the political elites in Serbia and Montenegro have been incapable of agreeing a formula for the role of the joint armed forces in the state union, and an agreement looks impossible while Montenegrin aspirations to secede remain unresolved.


In March 2002, a popular vote to quit the union was put on hold for three years, but the expectation is that by spring 2005 it will difficult to contest Montenegro’s legal right to organise a referendum on independence.


For the army, the present shambles is all the more difficult to accept, after the glories of the not-so-distant past.


The VSCG is the successor to the Yugoslav People's Army, JNA, which on the eve of the first war on the territory of former Yugoslavia in 1990 mustered 179,000 soldiers divided into 24 corps. At that time, the JNA was the fourth strongest military force in Europe.


Today, troop numbers have fallen to 65,000, and the VSCG is a shadow of that force. Big cuts to the military budget have eroded the level of combat readiness, left the army out of step with recent modern military technological developments and have increased the risk of accidents happening to soldiers.


Though one of the few remaining joint institutions of the state union, it has been sidelined in the recent budgets of the Serbian government, which covers most of its costs. Serbia covers 95 per cent of the state union's expenses – and the biggest slice if this goes to the armed forces. The army can also expect significant reductions over the next two years with the Serbian budget set for major cuts in 2005.


A day after the adoption of the most recent Serbian budget, defence minister Prvoslav Davinic complained that lack of money for the army jeopardised the future of military reforms. “The funds intended for the army would not allow for the implementation of the reforms,” he complained.


Although analysts in Belgrade credit the defence ministry with making progress in strengthening civilian control over the army, question marks still hang over the effectiveness of the reforms implemented so far.


Placing the army general staff under the control of the state union's defence ministry over the last two years is a major reformist gain, but other changes are being implemented slowly.


Civilian politicians are partly to blame.


Defence ministers Tadic and Davinic both espoused reforms, but according to Zoran Dragisic, associate of the Faculty for Civil Defence in Belgrade University:


“There is no political consensus in place on the role of the army in the state and the manner in which the state union should face security challenges.”


One indication of the way in which battles between pro-and anti-reformist political camps continue to dog military strategy came only days ago, when the state union's defence strategy was adopted by its parliament in mid-November.


A day or two before parliament was to meet on November 17 and adopt the strategy, the council of ministers submitted an amended version of the document, in which cooperation with the Hague tribunal was not mentioned.


The conflicts over strategy reflected in this document themselves reflect the lack of a political consensus in Serbia over the country’s overall direction, with centrist parties urging cooperation with the Hague and NATO membership while the powerful Radicals and their small Socialist allies argue the opposite.


That army chiefs themselves are divided over reforms is no secret, though estimates vary on the strength of their resistance. The fact that in public, military officials have not aired negative views on the ongoing reforms means little.


“Many people in the army cling to their old ideological legacy,” Stojadinovic said. “The members of the military elite have the mind-set stuck in 1948 [the year of the Tito’s break with Stalin]. ”


Dragisic, on the other hand, warns against the idea that the army can be transformed simply by mass sackings of the top brass.


“Personnel changes are important, but we cannot produce new generals overnight,” he said.


“People from the Milosevic period should be removed, but we will still have to wait for a new generation to mature. Internal rules must not be violated, and politics should not interfere with professionalism.”


The recent wave of public criticism of the military is seen by the army chiefs as an attack on the army as an institution.


The formation of the independent commission to investigate the Topcider incident has particularly annoyed some top brass, particularly when it emerged that the commission would probably not support the army’s version of the events at Topcider.


The army chief of staff, General Branko Krga, recently appealed on state television for attacks on the armed forces to stop, and criticised politicians [like Draskovic] who called on parents not to send their children to the army, adding that defence of the country was not the issue of goodwill but an obligation.


Krga told Radio Television Serbia, RTS, on November 18 that if the reports of the military and independent commissions did not match, relations between the country’s military and civilian structures would suffer.


The Belgrade military court's presiding judge Djordje Trifunovic told the Serbian media that the formation of the independent commission was a sign of distrust of the military judiciary.


In fact, the constitutional charter of Serbia and Montenegro does not envisage the continued existence of a separate military judiciary and recommends the transfer of its jurisdiction to civilian courts, through a special law.


The failure to adopt this legislation in Serbia is the reason for the current legal vacuum in which unconstitutional military courts still operate. The law on the transfer of the jurisdiction of the military courts to regular civil courts is expected to be adopted in Serbia in December. In Montenegro, by contrast, this legislation was adopted in July this year.


Opinions are divided on the long-term consequences of the controversial deaths of the two soldiers.


“The worst-case scenario would be for irregularities to be identified, and yet without holding anyone accountable for this,” Dragisic said. “On the other hand, the case could prove cathartic for the army - if it takes the necessary steps against those responsible.”


Stojadinovic says it is important to distinguish between attacks on the army top brass and the army as an institution.


“It’s an important distinction here” he told IWPR. “Whether the army today is trusted less as an institution, or whether this applies only to the people in charge.”


Pedja Obradovic is a journalist from RTV B92.


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