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Balkan Report: December 2, 1998

2 December 1998, Volume 2, Number 47

U.S. Shifting Policy on Serbia? State Department spokesman James Rubin said on November 30 that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is the root of "the problem" in the former Yugoslavia and cannot be considered a source of stability in the region, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. Rubin added that Washington favors the democratization of Serbia and applauds the moves by the Montenegrin government aimed at promoting democracy. The following day, Rubin suggested that the U.S. will not "lose any sleep if [Milosevic] passes from the scene" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," No. 46).

But the spokesman declined to comment on recent Western press reports that the Clinton administration is actively seeking Milosevic's overthrow in order to expedite obtaining an interim political solution in Kosova. Rubin noted, moreover, that the October agreement between Milosevic and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke shows that Washington must "balance principle and pragmatism in a very complicated situation."

On November 29, the London "Observer" had written that the Clinton administration recently decided to help hasten Milosevic's downfall. The article is vague on sourcing and details, but it makes the point that the Defense Department is reportedly concerned that Milosevic's continued hold on power would mean "an interminable U.S. [military] presence" in the Balkans.

It is difficult to say precisely what might have prompted a reconsideration of policy in Washington. Holbrooke had long argued that it is necessary for Washington to work with Milosevic because he is the only Serb with the authority to make any agreement stick. Critics, however, had charged that Milosevic is a dictator and was the person most responsible for the destruction of Tito's Yugoslavia and for the subsequent wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosova. The critics contend that Milosevic can hardly be considered a partner for peace or stability.

If official Washington has moved closer to the critics' view, one may now expect to see increased U.S. support for the Montenegrin government and for the independent media and a civil society in Serbia. A wild card will be Washington's relations with the Serbian opposition, which has disappointed opponents of Milosevic at home and abroad in recent years with its infighting and opportunism.

The Case of General Perisic. If any single recent event served to focus international attention on Milosevic's domestic political situation, it was his decision to replace General Momcilo Perisic with General Dragoljub Ojdanic as army chief of staff on November 24. Perisic attracted Serbian public attention with his role in evacuating Yugoslav troops from Zadar in 1991 and as commander in Herzegovina during the Bosnian war, "Vesti" reported.

He subsequently repeatedly refused to take sides in the dispute between Milosevic and the Montenegrin leadership and has stressed that the army must stay out of politics. In early 1997 he reportedly refused to use the army against protesters from the opposition "Zajedno" coalition, and he received a delegation from the demonstrators. A year later, he sent New Year's greetings to Milosevic's political arch-rival, Montenegrin President-elect Milo Djukanovic, and to the Montenegrin police who supported him against Milosevic's backers.

Then in October, Perisic told the daily "Blic" that "the basic problem [in Kosova] is that a shadow state has existed for years...There are very few politicians" who are willing to admit that they cannot solve the problem and make way for those who can. Perisic added that armies do not make policy and that the mission of the army is to defend the country. He noted that "Serbs have been fighting a war since 1991 and we still have no allies. Not even the Russian Federation has declared itself our ally. We have never been so isolated for so long and we have never [before] been without allies." Perisic concluded that "one doesn't make war against the entire world." Some Western press reports suggest that these remarks, along with Perisic's continued good relations with Djukanovic, led to his ouster.

In October, moreover, Milosevic sacked Jovica Stanisic, his intelligence chief. Other key figures whom Milosevic also purged recently include General Ljubisa Velickovic, who headed the Air Force, and Socialist Party deputy chief Milorad Vucelic, who was also director of state-run television. At the same time, persons characterized mainly by their loyalty to Mirjana Markovic, who is Milosevic's wife, rather than by their talents or abilities, have been ascendant.

Observers in Belgrade told "RFE/RL Balkan Report" that Milosevic may feel that he has already lost control of Kosova and is now preparing for a showdown with the Montenegrin leadership. One academic told "Vesti" that Milosevic is moving toward "totalitarianism and sultanism," which presumably is a reference to the arbitrary and absolute rule characteristic of much of the Ottoman period. Some commentators argued that Milosevic may be losing his grip on events and becoming increasingly dependent on his wife and her entourage. More than one article has suggested that there are parallels to the regime of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

In any event, General Perisic has not gone quietly. He said in a statement after his sacking that Milosevic's decision to fire him came "without consultation, without preparation, and in an illegal fashion." The general added that his dismissal shows that "the current authorities do not wish to have [military] leaders who have a high degree of integrity and who think for themselves." Perisic also noted that he remains "at the disposal of the army, the people, and the state."

Nor were the leaders in Podgorica slow in reacting to the sacking, which Djukanovic had reportedly opposed, albeit without success. Miodrag Vukovic, who is a top adviser to Djukanovic, said that the Montenegrin authorities want an OSCE monitoring mission to come there, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on November 27. The following day, State Prosecutor Bozidar Vukcevic said that Montenegro recognizes the "legality and legitimacy" of the Hague-based war crimes tribunal and will actively cooperate with it.

Belgrade Slams Foreign Talks with UCK. The Yugoslav government sent a strongly-worded statement to the OSCE on December 1, in which Belgrade blasted as "legalizing the terrorists" international efforts to draw the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) into the peace process. The text said that the UCK is involved in "insolent, criminal activity, and provocative actions, [which] present an obstacle to the peace process...The aim of the terrorists and separatists is not a political solution...but terror, violence, and an attempt to change borders." The Yugoslav authorities warned foreigners against maintaining "contacts...with terrorists, killers, kidnappers, bandits and other criminals that call themselves" the UCK. The statement concluded that Belgrade "will not allow [the UCK to continue its attacks] no matter what the price."

U.S. Gives Armored Escort to Serbian Police. Reuters wrote on December 1 from Malisheva that unnamed U.S. diplomats said that "U.S. observers have agreed to give an armored escort to Serb police patrols that run through hostile territory to [Malisheva] and keep the [Serbian paramilitary] police base [there] provisioned." The article also quoted an unnamed senior U.S. official as saying that "the escorts make the Serbs feel more comfortable as they haven't been attacked while we've been accompanying them." U.S. diplomat William Walker, who heads the OSCE verification mission in Kosova, recently urged Milosevic to withdraw the police garrison, which was not stationed in Malisheva before the current conflict. Milosevic said he "would consider" pulling the garrison out, but stressed the need to prevent the UCK from retaking the area. U.S. diplomats reportedly decided to escort the police to prevent the UCK from regaining an advantage. The police presence, however, discourages displaced Kosovars from returning to their homes in Malisheva, which is now a "devastated ghost town." Reuters also noted that EU "observers say the U.S. escorts contradict the diplomatic message to Milosevic and give an impression of confusion within the truce compliance mission."