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Analysis: Serbian Army Scandal Raises Questions

  • Patrick Moore

The killing of two conscripts has raised questions about the possible role of Serbia and Montenegro's military in protecting war crimes indictees. The scandal has also served to further unsettle an already volatile political situation.

On 5 October, two young soldiers on guard near Belgrade's extensive Topcider military complex died in a shooting incident. The army subsequently announced that the two had shot each other, but many Serbs suspected that there was something more involved than a tragic accident, or even an incident of bullying or hazing, which are no rarity in the Serbian military. Some journalists pointed out, moreover, that conscripts Dragan Jakovljevic and Drazen Milovanovic had apparently Serbian names, whereas bullying incidents often involve members of ethnic minorities.

The army made an initial report on the incident, and on 21 October Defense Minister Prvoslav Davinic sacked Colonel Radomir Cosic as commander of the Guards Brigade, to which the two young recruits belonged. For its part, the Supreme Defense Council, which is headed by Serbia and Montenegro President Svetozar Marovic, subsequently named an independent commission to conduct an investigation, but it was not completely independent of the military.
The media reported that Draskovic also held secret talks with Serbian President Boris Tadic aimed at bringing down the government.

Some critics suggested that the guards were shot because they discovered the presence of one or more indicted war criminals at the facility, which is a cavernous command post dating from the era of Marshal Josip Broz Tito. It reportedly contains a six-floor-deep bomb shelter under the capital's Dedinje District, where many of the elite live. Carla Del Ponte, who is the Hague-based war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, and many critics inside Serbia have long argued that the Serbian military and some of the civilian authorities are protecting former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and some other indictees, a charge that the Serbian government denies.

The growing scandal over the Topcider killings quickly took on a political dimension. Serbia and Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic and former Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac suggested in Belgrade on 7 and 10 November, respectively, that the soldiers were shot because they had indeed seen someone they were not supposed to see. Korac echoed Draskovic, who charged that the authorities "are hiding the crime [of concealing indictees] with lies and new crimes." The foreign minister argued that "our soldiers are being killed outside the secret [tunnel] entrances of those [war criminals] whose hostages we are [in the eyes of the international community], and then [the authorities] say those young guards shot each other."

About this time, the Serbian media reported that Draskovic also held secret talks with Serbian President Boris Tadic in Belgrade aimed at bringing down the government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, to which Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) belongs, and forcing early elections. The outspoken Draskovic has publicly criticized the Serbian government over a variety of issues ever since it was set up early in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February and 19 April 2004).

Tadic told reporters on 12 November that his talks with Draskovic were about Kosova and cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, on which the two men share identical views, and not about electoral politics. But Tadic's Democratic Party and Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) are bitter rivals. Recent public opinion polls suggest that Tadic is Serbia's most popular politician, whereas Kostunica and the DSS finish a poor third after the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and Tomislav Nikolic (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 September and 8 October 2004).

On 13 November, the SPO called on parents of draftees not to allow their sons to report for duty until the Topcider incident is clarified. Defense Minister Davinic criticized the SPO's appeal as senseless.

Former Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic of the Democratic Party then wrote in the Belgrade daily "Blic" of 14 November that the Topcider incident and the ensuing scandal show that "the army is running the country," and that General Aco Tomic is the power behind Kostunica. "Look at whose reports Kostunica bases his decisions on. I repeat, Aco Tomic is the chief of state [hiding] in the wings," Zivkovic charged.

Elsewhere, lawyer and prominent human rights activist Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco told the German news agency dpa that the army is in need of a thorough reform. "The army has not only not reformed [after the fall of communism], it was frozen in the Cold War era, and that on the side of the Soviet Union," she stressed. The army "has never, ever touched and has continued influencing the country through manipulation, intimidation, blackmail, even murder," she said.

Meanwhile, the army has apparently succeeded in blocking the release of any findings by the independent commission that would contradict its own version of the Topcider incident. Lawyer Bozo Prelevic, who heads the commission, said in Belgrade on 13 November that that body did not reveal its findings the previous day as planned because it and the army failed to agree on their findings.

President Marovic then stated that outside experts might be called in to assist in the investigation, suggesting that he had unnamed foreign experts in mind. But General Branko Krga, who heads the army's General Staff, said on 16 November that any "supervision" over the commission must not come from abroad, only from within Serbia and Montenegro. He repeated the military's position that "we are hiding no fugitives."

For now, it remains unclear whether the scandal will lead to further revelations about abuse of power within the military and perhaps to some reforms, or whether it will only serve as a political football between the Kostunica government and its opponents.