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Yugoslavia: Kostunica, Djindjic Trade Accusations As the Noose Tightens

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and his political rival, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, are both urging the other to resign over the recent "spy scandal" involving Deputy Prime Minister Momcilo Perisic and a U.S. diplomat. Perisic himself has already stepped down because of the incident. Djindjic says Kostunica appears to have known in advance about the planned arrest of Perisic and the diplomat, while Kostunica's party says Djindjic should resign because Perisic was a close associate.

Prague, 22 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic is in a tight spot. His deputy prime minister, Momcilo Perisic, resigned this week after being arrested by Yugoslav military security for allegedly passing classified information to a U.S. diplomat in a motel restaurant near Belgrade.

The independent Belgrade daily "Blic" yesterday quoted a military court source as saying the document that Perisic allegedly gave last week to the U.S. embassy's first secretary for political affairs, John David Neighbor, concerned military issues related to the defense and security of the state.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's party is demanding that Djindjic himself resign because, it says, "his closest associate was caught in espionage."

Djindjic and Kostunica, though members of the same broad coalition of 18 parties, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), have been archrivals since taking office after former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was forced out of power nearly 18 months ago.

But while some Belgrade analysts predict Djindjic may have little choice but to step down, the Serbian prime minister -- the proreform darling of the international community, who delivered Milosevic to The Hague war crimes tribunal last June -- has gone on the offensive. He suggests it is Kostunica who should resign because either Kostunica was aware of the military's suspicions about Perisic and failed to act or was in a position to know but chose not to be informed.

Djindjic says that if what Yugoslav military security says about Perisic is true -- that he threatened the country's security by passing secret data to a U.S. diplomat -- then" "It was highly irresponsible that he was allowed to continue to be Serbian deputy prime minister."

The scandal is raising questions about the lack of controls on the Yugoslav military, described by some as a state within a state, which took it upon itself to arrest Perisic without informing the prime minister or the Serbian government until hours later.

Djindjic reiterated his demand that military security chief Aco Tomic resign on the grounds that Tomic had known about the suspicions concerning Perisic for five months but had not informed other departments engaged in national security and thus functioned completely independently as a self-styled supreme arbiter. Djindjic said: "They are not a state within a state. They are a state over a state, and they have an unacceptable attitude toward the Serbian government."

As Djindjic puts it, "Who is this general of [communist-era leader Josip Broz] Tito's to decide whether a democratic institution such as the Serbian government is credible or not? That is not within his jurisdiction, but [Tomic] has done it and that is why he has to go."

But Djindjic saved his choicest words for Kostunica.

"As far as I'm concerned, as long as Mr. Tomic occupies his post, which is an insult to the Serbian government in view of his conduct, I fail to see any way that I can cooperate with President Kostunica on any national security issue."

Kostunica has been adamant in defending his aides and has invited their detractors to deal directly with him instead. On 20 March, Kostunica took exception to Djindjic's claim that he should have been informed.

"Is it really possible that anyone who is really familiar with police work believes that whenever a secret service discovers something it should go public with its findings?"

Kostunica announced that the Supreme Defense Council will meet on 25 March to discuss the Perisic case and "to take corresponding steps."

For his part, Perisic told a news conference in Belgrade on 20 March that he neither gave nor received anything in his contacts with the U.S. diplomat, describing contacts between politicians and representatives of other countries as "perfectly normal."

The Belgrade news media allege Yugoslav military security has video recordings allegedly showing Perisic receiving money and handing over computer disks he had hidden under his shirt. Government officials are reported to have been shown the video at a closed-door meeting earlier this week.

Perisic says he resigned for two reasons -- so as not to burden the Serbian government and to devote himself to his defense. And Perisic said he has been aware that he is under constant surveillance.

"Gentlemen, I've been under surveillance at least since 1989. They have been watching my every step, like bacteria under a microscope."

Perisic insists this is not the end of his political career, noting that he intends to hold on to the chairmanship of his party and his mandate as a lawmaker in the federal parliament.

Perisic was army chief of staff until November 1998, when Milosevic fired him over his criticism of Serbian policies in Kosovo.