Accessibility links

Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- The Yugoslav Army And Milosevic's Fate

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 2 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Reports that several Yugoslav army units say they will not obey orders to move against pro-democracy demonstrators in Belgrade underscore the erosion of President Slobodan Milosevic's political base.

But three aspects of civil-military relations in Yugoslavia -- splits between the high command and junior officers, divisions among military units, and the strength of the police relative to the army -- suggest that what would already be the death knell for most governments may have less definitive and far messier implications there.

In Yugoslavia as in many post-communist states, there is an enormous gulf between senior commanders and more junior officers. The former, the products of the old communist military leadership, prefer stability over anything else. The latter, with far closer ties to the people, want both a more professional army and a more democratic society.

This division cuts two ways. On the one hand, senior officers not surprisingly generally back Milosevic and his regime. But on the other hand, they like all commanders are reluctant to give orders that might not be obeyed by their subordinates.

Caught in this vise, the general staff this week issued a statement that the Yugoslav army will remain neutral, a decision that both further weakens Milosevic and simultaneously gives more freedom of action to particular military units and to the police.

That is because the military itself is deeply divided along functional lines and now finds itself relatively weaker than the police, both patterns common to many post-communist countries.

Low-tech infantry units composed of relatively less educated rural youth are likely to remain supportive of the government. Air force and more technically advanced units, whose troops are likely to be more educated and more urban, are likely to be more sympathetic to the demonstrators.

Evidence for this split and its political consequences was provided by the statement of the units who said they would not obey orders to attack the demonstrators: "Our jets, tanks, cannons and howitzers will aim exclusively at enemies ... and if need be, we will lead the Serb people into the final, victorious truth."

Under certain conditions, such divisions could lead to conflicts among military units, something that would dramatically escalate the conflict in Belgrade.

But even more important than these divisions within the military are the historical splits and even animosity between the army on the one hand, and the police on the other.

Traditionally, the army has seen itself as the defender of the nation and has looked down on the police who typically have viewed themselves as the defenders of those in power. Moreover, the Yugoslav police force is now almost as large as the Yugoslav army. According to recent estimates, the country has some 100,000 policemen and only 114,000 soldiers. And for purposes of crowd control, the police are better equipped and better trained.

At least for the present, they remain unquestionably obedient to Milosevic, who has done what he can to ensure their loyalty.

The Yugoslav leader has attempted to ensure that the police are paid regularly, something that has not been true in the army. And he has done nothing to dissuade the police that their fate depends on his: If he goes, so do they.

Consequently, even if Milosevic has lost the support of urban Yugoslavs and can no longer count on the unquestioned backing of the army, he may still be able to count on the police.

But the very narrowness of Milosevic's power base may be setting the stage for a series of potentially violent clashes not only between the police and the people but between the police and the army.

And such a development might not lead to the democratic transformations the demonstrators hope for but rather further destabilize what is already the most unstable part of Europe.