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Yugoslavia: Belgrade Arrests Shake Political Foundations, Ties With U.S.

  • Jolyon Naegele

Yugoslav military officials arrested Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Momcilo Perisic on 14 March in a Belgrade motel restaurant, along with a U.S. diplomat, John David Neighbor. The military says Perisic was giving documents to the U.S. diplomat that were "relevant for the defense of the country." After releasing the diplomat the following day and Perisic on 16 March, the military said it might charge Perisic with spying for the U.S. Both the U.S. embassy and Perisic deny that any documents changed hands. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports that Serbian political leaders denounced the detentions, apologized to the U.S., and are pledging to impose strict civilian control over the military.

Prague, 18 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At about 8 p.m. on 14 March, Yugoslav military police entered the restaurant of Belgrade's Saric motel. They arrested Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and former military commander Momcilo Perisic and the U.S. diplomat he was meeting, accusing them both of spying.

The military put a bag over the head of the diplomat, the U.S. embassy's first secretary for political affairs, John David Neighbor, and took him to a secret location, where they held him for at least 15 hours. His briefcase was confiscated, though later returned to him, allegedly with incriminating papers he had never seen before. Also arrested were two other men at the table, a civilian and a senior Yugoslav military officer.

U.S. embassy spokesman Paul Denig says the arresting officers were in civilian clothes and did not show any identification, only later presenting themselves as members of the Yugoslav military police. He says the U.S. diplomat was prevented from contacting the U.S. embassy for 15 hours.

Denig says that in addition to concern about an attack on a U.S. diplomat, the U.S. is also concerned about what he termed "an attack on an elected representative of the Serbian government."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was equally emphatic in condemning the detentions. "The United States is outraged at this unwarranted detention of a U.S. diplomat. We are forcefully protesting these actions by the Yugoslav military to the Yugoslav civilian authorities, including the president's office."

The U.S. has since accepted apologies for the arrest from Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic.

Serbian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Dusan Mihailovic says his ministry was not informed in any way about the arrests.

"Our initial impression is that the whole case of the so-called secret military documents found in the American diplomat's briefcase is extraordinarily suspect, since this bag without any basis was taken away from the diplomat and returned to him several hours later, when he claimed that the contents of the bag had been changed. Instead of what had been in it, there were these documents which were placed in it while the bag was impounded."

Serbian Justice Minister Vladen Batic criticizes the conditions under which the U.S. diplomat was arrested.

"This is a flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention because people with diplomatic status, according to Article 29 of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, cannot be arrested or detained or jailed in any way."

The military prosecutor's office says the U.S. diplomat was released as soon as his diplomatic status was confirmed.

On 16 March, President Vojislav Kostunica initially defended the legality of the arrests.

"According to everything I know so far -- I stress that, so far -- the legality of the procedure shouldn't be in doubt. The question is very sensitive for us in another sense, in view of the delicacy of our relations with the United States. Certainly, no country should allow the slightest doubt about the transfer of military secrets."

Kostunica's chief political rival, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, rejects any suggestion by Kostunica that the detention of Perisic, who has parliamentary immunity, was legal.

After a meeting of Yugoslav and Serbian government leaders last night, Kostunica issued a statement today demanding an investigation into all aspects of the case, as well as into the functioning of the country's military and security services. Kostunica also called for an examination and reconsideration of the functioning of military and civilian security bodies, to make their work as transparent as possible.

Djindjic says Serbian and Yugoslav federal leaders were kept in the dark about the arrests. He says that neither the federal defense minister, the federal justice minister, nor the army chief of staff were informed about the detentions in advance.

"I know it was a couple of people who took matters into their own be able to say, 'Hey, look, the spies have been caught.'...They wanted to take the (political) temperature. It's not in anyone's interest that our country, in the eyes of the world community, comes off as a battle site in the struggle between reform and antireform forces."

Laura Silber is a former Belgrade correspondent for "The Financial Times," co-author of "Yugoslavia -- Death of a Nation," and currently a New York-based senior policy adviser to international financier George Soros. She says the scandal is "another manifestation" of the power struggle between Kostunica and Djindjic.

Silber says it does not appear that Kostunica directed the arrests but that because the army "is his power base," she says his first instinct was to back it. She notes the Yugoslav Army is not a monolith but is commanded by "a lot of the old guard who have been siding with Kostunica in his disputes with Djindjic."

"Obviously, now it has reached the point of basically being an international scandal, and President Kostunica's refusal to condemn it and insisting on its complete legality -- especially in light of the fact that an American diplomat was arrested -- shows that, first of all, Kostunica doesn't have that many other sources of power. But it also shows that he really isn't in control and that the army itself is looking for or believes it can still play a political role, and this may be an act of desperation. And it also obviously stems, I would think, in part from fears about The Hague."

The Serbian government is expected to transfer several present and former senior Yugoslav officials who were active under Milosevic to The Hague tribunal. As a result, Silber says the top brass in the military "are fighting for their political lives and maybe even to stay out of prison."