Misha Glenny calls for a coup in Belgrade
After five and a half years of carnage and chaos, the Yugoslav Army (VJ) is tattered and demoralised; its officers have lost the enormous prestige which the old Yugoslavia showered on its predecessor, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). The Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, has carried out regular purges of the generals and colonels, blaming the Army for defeats in Bosnia and Croatia, even as the outside world excoriates it for the massacres that took place during the wars in both places. The heroic exploits of Serbia’s soldiers and Tito’s Partisans in the First and Second World Wars are forgotten, embedded in a history which has been obscured by the bloodshed of half a decade. Now that the Army is penniless, sitting on stocks of rusting weaponry and outmoded ordnance, even senior officers have begun to sign petitions protesting against their ever thinner wage packets. Milosevic ignores the military’s advice. During last year’s anti-Government demonstrations, sustained for more than three months, he warned the VJ leadership to keep its nose out of politics. For the first time, the VJ’s younger officers expressed support for Milosevic’s opponents, even promising that they would uphold the democratic rights of ordinary citizens. This was taken at the time to mean that part of the Army would support the opposition in any confrontation with forces loyal to the President. Milosevic’s growing suspicion of the Army has led him to rely instead on his personal retinue – the vastly expanded police force comprising 60-70,000 well-armed and well-paid men.
Vol. 20 No. 8 · 16 April 1998
In the spring of 1944 I was in the Belgrade house of a most friendly Serb. Suddenly he asked for the box of matches that I had in my hand, wrote something on one side and handed it back to me. On it was written a number: ‘1,600,000.’ He asked me to give him back the matchbox, then turned it over and wrote something on the other side. It was a similar number and I asked him what it all signified. He stood up, saying: ‘1,600,000 was the population of Serbia when the Turks defeated Tsar Lazar at Kosovo in 1389; 1,640,000 was the population of England at that same time.’
Obviously I was failing to grasp the current application of those 14th-century figures, so Bogdan Petrovic added: ‘If the Battle of Kosovo had gone otherwise it would have been I, Bogdan Petrovic, who would be in England today visiting you in your misery to offer you help. You would be standing up saying: “Gospodin Petrovic, pray be you seated, I am shamed, I have nothing to offer you except the end of this bottle of very bad whisky.” Instead it is I, Bogdan Petrovic, who, in my own country, must say: “Gospodin Pukovnik, be you welcome under my roof, pray help my children to find work and deign to accept what is left of this bottle of very bad slivovic.”’ Had the Serbs won the Battle of Kosovo, and had England failed to win at Agincourt, Serbia might well have become a major medieval kingdom and outshone a Britain not yet Great.
My friend, a good Serbian Orthodox Christian, was of a culture continuous with that of the Byzantine Empire. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution had not touched him. He was quite free of any trace of 19th-century social thinking. His intellectual strength lay in his pride, in his Orthodox Serbian birthright. He was no Pan-Slav – the Russians had showed their unreliability by failing to back Serbia in the Balkan wars. It is not without reason that Kosovo, as Misha Glenny (LRB, 2 April) knows, haunts Serbian thinking: the Great War was triggered on its anniversary (Vidovdan) by the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. Moreover, Tsar Lazar, who fell at Kosovo, has a long-standing habit, which persisted even into this last war, of appearing in the dawn sky over great battlefields. We had better stop fumbling: the Serbs, whom neither Tito nor the Nazis managed to change, will not abandon their ways just because we argue with them to give the world a spontaneous display of pragmatic Protestant democracy.
Vol. 20 No. 9 · 7 May 1998
Misha Glenny (LRB, 2 April) is by no means alone in wondering whether a military coup is the only way to rid Serbia of the Milosevic regime. It is to his credit that he suggests that, were such an event ever to occur, ‘Milosevic and his seedy entourage would, of course, be granted protective custody.’ The brutality with which Serbia’s royal couple was murdered by a group of army officers on 11 June 1903 led to Serbia’s first spell of international isolation this century. Britain (and the Netherlands) refused to recognise the new Serbian regime for three years.
Glenny, however, is mistaken in several important details. The whole Serbian Army was not involved in and did not support the anti-Obrenovic conspiracy, nor was the conspiracy a purely military affair. True, it was initiated by a group of young officers from the Belgrade garrison, one of whom was Lt Dragutin Dimitrijevic-Apis, but he did not orchestrate the coup, as Glenny suggests. The conspiracy was masterminded by several more senior officers and a group of politicians, including former cabinet ministers such as Djordje Gencic and Jovan Avakumovic, both members of the Liberal Party. It was these politicians who formed a provisional (coalition) government and they, not the Army, ‘restored a liberal constitution’. The Army did, however, give its consent. The officers involved in the ‘Belgrade palace revolution’ (as it was soon dubbed by the British) exercised a strong influence on Serbian politics. This situation changed three years after the regicide, on Britain’s insistence and after two unsuccessful counter-conspiracies organised by army officers opposed to the growing power of the conspirators.
Misha Glenny correctly notes the similarities between the Obrenovic-Masin and the Milosevic-Markovic ruling couples, yet fails to recognise obvious differences between the two periods. Present-day Yugoslav army officers are products of the same system which made Slobodan Milosevic; an equivalent of the democratically-minded Prince Petar of the rival Karadjordjevic dynasty is lacking; and, anyway, Serbia is no longer a monarchy. The opposition politicians are either bigger nationalists than Milosevic or are hopelessly divided – the figure most likely to emerge victorious after a military coup is Vojislav Seselj, leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, who is believed to enjoy the largest support among the junior officer corps. Finally, and perhaps most important, Milosevic, unlike Aleksander, as Glenny points out, controls a large police force, which is in fact his private army.
University of London