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Yugoslav Generals to Resist Army Reform

Will the premiers of Serbia and Montenegro have the stomach to force reform on the armed forces?
By Daniel Sunter

The prime ministers of Serbia and Montenegro are about to take control of the Yugoslav armed forces, raising prospects for the reform of a body riddled with institutionalised corruption.


The takeover is due to occur in February, when the former Yugoslav federation is dissolved and replaced by a new, looser union between Serbia and Montenegro. The two republican premiers will then jointly assume responsibility for all former federal institutions.


The change raises hopes that Serbia's premier, Zoran Djindjic, and his Montenegrin counterpart, Milo Djukanovic, will start to tackle the last institution to escape reform since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic.


After Milosevic was toppled in October 2000, the army came under the wing of the new Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica. He then left Milosevic's key figures in place in return for receiving their loyalty in his struggle against his political rival, Djindjic.


But the European Union-sponsored agreement to create a new union between Serbia and Montenegro means Kostunica will cease to be federal president, depriving him of authority of the one state institution he controlled - the army.


The new government plans to appoint Zoran Zivkovic, deputy leader of Djindjic's Democratic Party, DS, as the union's defence minister.


Zivkovic, currently federal minister of police, is a decisive figure and will not shrink from removing Kostunica supporters from the army's top ranks. He is also seen as the kind of man who may be willing to take on powerful vested interests, representing anti-western, financial and generals' lobbies, which will fight reform tooth and nail.


An unsigned army letter published in the Belgrade media in January drew attention to the level of opposition he may expect. The letter claimed the army opposed Zivkovic's appointment and wanted a more "competent" figure in his place.


Besides taking over control of the defence ministry, the constitutional changes will grant Djukanovic and Djindjic total control over the key institution controlling the military apparatus, the Supreme Defence Council, VSO.


Sources close to the Serbian authorities believe the new union government will act fast to dismiss the head of military security, General Aco Tomic and his associates, who acted in concert with Kostunica's advisors to spearhead confrontations with Djindjic.


The same fate is likely to befall a number of security officers who worked under Milosevic to try to forment a civil war in Montenegro, pushing the 7th Battalion of the army police into clashes with the Montenegrin police.


The same sources believe an additional motive for their dismissal will be found in pressure from the international community over the unresolved issue of the former Bosnian Serb military chief, Ratko Mladic.


The West wants Mladic and his political boss Radovan Karadzic extradited speedily to face trial before The Hague tribunal. Mladic is suspected of hiding in Serbia, and receiving informal support from anti-western elements in the army's security service.


The extradition question has dogged relations with the West and jeopardised US financial aid and Yugoslavia's membership of NATO's Partnership for Peace programme and other international bodies.


The test of the new government's resolve to tackle reform of the army will not only be their willingness to force through changes in personnel but the adoption of regulations harmonising the armed forces with western standards.


Attention will focus in particular on disbanding military security as a separate department, as its existence is widely seen as the mark of an authoritarian state that persecutes dissidents within the military.


Western military analysts will also be watching to see if the government takes on the army's financial lobby, which opposes civilian control over the forces. Officers sympathetic to this lobby still control key positions in the defence ministry and general staff finance departments, although such jobs are invariably in civilian hands in the West.


The fact that these positions remain in military hands in Yugoslavia raises a distinct danger of corruption and of conflict of interest, as the posts involve direct contact with hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for defence.


Their replacement with civilian experts would incur great resistance from the army's financial lobby, which in the past has not been subject to public scrutiny when making deals.


Military sources say financial corruption is rampant within the Yugoslav army on all levels - from such banal matters as the procurement of food for barracks to the purchase of expensive weapons and new technology.


Several recent incidents have hinted at the extent of this corruption. They include the arrest of the former head of the general staff's financial office, Zivorad Vujicic, for fraud; and several investigations into irregular purchases of equipment for an elite army hospital, the murder of the former defense minister, Pavle Bulatovic and military sales to Iraq.


Besides the need to conduct a thorough clean-up of the ranks, the new administration will face the problem of cutting numbers among the top brass. Yugoslavia has an abnormally large number of generals at 53. Israel by comparison has only 22.


But NATO sources predict fierce opposition from the so-called generals' lobby, which is determined to maintain the military status quo that once existed throughout the former eastern block.


The generals resent civilian scrutiny, and do not want cuts in the number of officers or reductions in total troops numbers, now set at around 70,000, even though many units are maintained only to justify the large number of generals.


If Djindjic and Djukanovic openly confront these entrenched interests within the military, they will be showing the world that they are really in earnest about forcing reform on the armed forces.


Daniel Sunter is IWPR's coordinating editor in Belgrade.