Serbia: Spy Affair Deals Djindjic Hefty Blow

The Perisic espionage scandal could further weaken Premier Zoran Djindjic and deprive Serbia of much needed US financial aid.

Serbia: Spy Affair Deals Djindjic Hefty Blow

The Perisic espionage scandal could further weaken Premier Zoran Djindjic and deprive Serbia of much needed US financial aid.

The resignation of Serbian deputy prime minister, Momcilo Perisic, this week over espionage charges has not only wounded the republic's embattled premier, Zoran Djindjic, but also undercut the chances of war crime suspects being extradited to The Hague.

Perisic stepped down after being charged with passing top-secret information to the Americans. Military intelligence servicemen, under the control of Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, arrested him at a motel on the outskirts of Belgrade on March 14.

The retired general is a senior figure in the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, the multi-party coalition led by Djindjic that has ruled Serbia since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. Yesterday, he told national television that he "will defend my innocence and not claim any immunity".

Perisic was chief of staff of the Yugoslav army from 1993-8, while Milosevic was in power. Dismissed in late 1998, he went on to found the Movement for Democratic Serbia, a party that attracted numerous dissidents from military circles.

An army general who took part in the arrest said, under conditions of anonymity, Perisic had been detained for trying to pass important intelligence information to John Neighbor, First Secretary at the US embassy in Belgrade.

Two independent sources, one close to Djindjic, and the other from Serbian police ranks, confirmed this.

The general said secret service officers had taped Perisic giving an envelope to Neighbor containing data that would enable whoever came into its possession to listen in on the telephone conversations of senior Serbian and Yugoslav officials. He said he had been present when the deputy premier admitted passing the information to the American but had denied being a spy.

The general said Neighbor - arrested at the same time as Perisic - was calmer and more collected than the deputy prime minister under interrogation and had admitted he was CIA chief for the entire Balkans. This was denied by the US embassy. And when IWPR tried to contact the diplomat, it said he had left Belgrade.

The day after Perisic's arrest, special military forces took him to Serbian government headquarters, where a search of his office uncovered more than a hundred top-secret military documents, the military source continued. "This is just a small part of the evidence that we possess," he went on, adding that an investigation into Perisic's activities had started months ago, when secret service officials first noticed information was leaking from Yugoslav army headquarters.

The source claimed the CIA had blackmailed Perisic, threatening to pass an audio-tape to The Hague war crimes tribunal revealing it was he who instructed the Bosnian Serb army chief, Ratko Mladic, to attack the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995.

The attack on the town in eastern Bosnia ended in the worst single massacre in Europe since the end of the Second World War, with the killing of 6,000 men and boys.

Significantly, sources close to Djindjic told IWPR a few months ago that the prime minister had been alerted to the fact that Perisic was being blackmailed over Srebrenica.

The arrest will have serious consequences for Djindjic and for Yugoslavia's cooperation with The Hague. By detaining the deputy prime minister, the anti-war crimes tribunal lobby in the Yugoslav army, which is close to Kostunica, has undermined prospects of new extraditions. What the latter have sought to prove is that the premier and his loyalists are unpatriotic and instruments of The Hague.

Before the drama, Djindjic was already struggling to summon public support for sending war crimes suspects to the tribunal, primarily because of the growing hostility towards The Hague, which the Milosevic trial had triggered. Now the prospect of extraditions beginning by a March 31 deadline set by Washington for delivery of I15 million US dollars seem poor.

The anti-war crimes lobby also prevented Perisic passing The Hague information implicating the Yugoslav army in the Bosnian war. Such evidence could prove crucial in proving Milosevic's indictment over Bosnia.

The prime minister at first tried to save his deputy, claiming military intelligence had no mandate to monitor Perisic or the US diplomat. But at a meeting of military and civilians heads in Kostunica's office on Sunday night, a source said Djindjic "remained silent" after video and audiotapes were shown, proving Perisic had revealed army secrets. "He went to the meeting ready to defend Perisic, believing military intelligence didn't really have a case," the source said.

On Monday, Kostunica challenged Djindjic to surrender Perisic or resign along with his cabinet. The premier conceded, claiming at a press conference that he had personally "demanded" Perisic's resignation to open the way for the judiciary to investigate the affair. He insisted his only motive had been to "prevent (the Perisic) case from being an additional burden on the Serbian government".

Djindjic demanded the resignation of the commander of military intelligence, Aco Tomic, who led the arrest operation, as a quid pro quo. But Kostunica is unlikely to agree to that. On the contrary, he plans to make him army chief of staff in place of Nebojsa Pavkovic, who is widely suspected of involvement in Kosovo war crimes.

Tomic's promotion will deal a further blow to the chances of cooperation with The Hague, as well as intimidating government ministers close to Djindjic who keep up informal contacts with foreigners.

By arresting Perisic, Tomic has sent them a clear signal to drop Djindjic and come over to Kostunica. Several ministers may now abandon the prime minister as a result of the affair.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor-in-chief of the Belgrade weekly Blic News.

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