Max Primorac's article on JNA in Herald Tribune
Will the armed forces take over Serbia?
Friday, April 4, 2003
ZAGREB, Croatia After the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic,Serbia's fragmented democratic forces must deal with the loss of a possibly irreplaceable reformer while staving off the chaos that oftenfills such power vacuums. Looming ominously in the background, meanwhile,is a possibility that international and Yugoslav officials are failing to confront adequately - a de facto military takeover.
The Yugoslav National Army, or JNA, is not only the strongest institution in the country, but also the one that Djindjic had the least success reforming. Deeply compromised by its close association with and support of former President Slobodan Milosevic, it is thoroughly penetrated by powerful crime syndicates.
No other institution is in a better position to benefit from the vacuum left in the wake of Djindjic's departure. Serbia's neighbors are holding their breath - and for goodreason. Any move by Serbia's military-criminal complex to reassert its control over politics would undo the international community's efforts to bring peace, stability and democracy to the former Yugoslavia.
It is difficult to determine where Serbia's criminal underworld ends and where its security and intelligence services begin. Although Djindjic's administration undertook significant reforms on several fronts, the security apparatus remained beyond civilian control. In fact, a leading suspect in Djindjic's murder is a Milosevic-era special forces commander and crime boss wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia for war crimes committed in Bosnia.
A report by the International Crisis Group documents how Belgrade has soldmore than $1 billion worth of illicit arms to Baghdad and other rogue regimes since Milosevic's ouster, pointing to the "power of Communist-era networks linking military, industrial and criminal elites, and the unwillingness or inability ofcivilian political leaders to control the security sector."
Several factors might lead the JNA to decide that it is in its best interests to stage a coup or, more likely, arrange for a de facto takeover by proxy.
First, military leaders understand that full cooperation with the war crimes tribunal remains a precondition for desperately needed Western aid. This means sending their colleagues or themselves to jail - an obvious non-starter. The tribunal has accused the JNA of harboring several indicted Serbian officers. Djindjic'sassassination sends a clear message to his successors about what they riskshould they dare consider extraditing these suspects. The military may simply conclude that its interests are best served by taking power.
Second, the JNA has seen its privileges and budget shrink as the countryfor which it was created to defend, Yugoslavia, has vanished. The illicit trade in arms, drugs, contraband and women, and the crime syndicates that broker it, has helped stem the financial decline. Reform threatens this illicit network.
Third, there remains strong populist support for a greater Serbia, stokedby the stifling economic hardship that has accompanied tough reforms. Despite the warnings of many in the region, the West has never fully appreciated the continued popularity of Milosevic's imperial designs. In December's presidential elections,the extremist candidate Vojislav Seselj - now in a Hague jail awaiting prosecution - won more than a third of the popular vote, an alarming sign that radical nationalism still grips the Serbian political psyche.
This danger extends beyond the radical nationalists. Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic has taken a hard-line position over Kosovo, advocating its territorial partition and demanding that Serbian security forces be allowed to reenter the province. At the same time Serbs in Kosovo have called for the creation of their own statelet.
These developments chillingly echo the terrible events of 1991-1992, when Serb nationalist demands for separate states were preludes to war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The recent decision by Belgrade to establish a major new security base in Albanian-populated southern Serbia, near the border with Kosovo, is sure to inflame already tense Serbian-Albanian relations.
Events in Belgrade are generating considerable concern in Bosnia about continued Serbian irredentist designs over half its territory. Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb republic, is already dominated by a security-criminal apparatus similar to that emerging in Serbia.
Bosnia can take little comfort from the fact that Vojislav Kostunica, until recently president of Yugoslavia and Djindjic's main political antagonist, is now Serbia's most popular political figure, given his electoral campaign statement that Republika Srpska is only "temporarily" separated from Serbia. In fact, Kostunica's strident anti-Hague and anti-U.S. stances make him a convenient proxy candidate for the military.
With Djindjic's death, the post-Dayton peace architecture may begin to unravel. Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid, the international community finds itself facing the very real possibility that the Balkans will once again become a flashpoint.
The writer is president of the Center for Civil Society in Southeastern Europe and executive director of the Institute of World Affairs regional office in Zagreb.
Copyright C 2003 The International Herald Tribune