Vol. 20 No. 7 · 2 April 1998

Misha Glenny calls for a coup in Belgrade

2056 words

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.

In Kosovo, too, the ruthless assaults on Prekaz and other villages were carried out by the police and special forces, not by the military. Indeed, in the month leading up to the Kosovo crisis, the Army leadership issued two statements appealing to all sides in the province to seek a political solution. Given that these were official Serb documents, they were uncharacteristically respectful of the Albanians. The Army stressed that it would not engage in hostilities except under provocation. In other words, its attitude to the repression in Kosovo is ambiguous.

Europe’s 20th century began with an assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 and ended with the terrible siege of the city. Serbia’s century, however, started with a spectacular military takeover 11 years before the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The VJ could – even should – use the same means to bring down the curtain on the whole violent drama whose opening act was played out in Belgrade, in the early hours of 11 June 1903. On that occasion, the conspirators had the reigning monarch in their sights. An insider, Lieutenant Petar Zivkovic, pushed open the thick oak door of Belgrade’s Royal Palace to let in dozens of young Serbian officers. They swarmed into the courtyard to be confronted by members of the palace guard still loyal to King Aleksander and Queen Draga. After fierce fighting which left several dead, and with fire spreading through the building, the plotters combed the palace for the royal couple. When they reached the main bedchamber, it was empty, but the sheets on the bed were still warm. Eventually an officer noticed that behind one set of curtains in the bedchamber there was a panel, rather than a window. With a gun at his head, the King’s adjutant called on his master to come out from behind the secret door. ‘Can I depend on the oath of my officers?’ His Majesty enquired. ‘Yes,’ came the reply, spoken in unison. But as the door in the panelling opened, Aleksander fell in a hail of bullets. Queen Draga collapsed on top of him. The soldiers were not finished, however. Drawing their swords, they slashed away at the two bodies before hurling the remains out of the window.

The coup marked the ignominious demise of the Obrenovic dynasty. Aleksander and his father, Milan, had built up Serbia’s Army, not primarily to do battle with the Habsburg, Bulgarian or Turkish Armies, but to crush the country’s restless peasantry, and in so doing laid the foundation on which Serbia’s modern autocratic traditions were built. But Aleksander, like Milosevic, rashly neglected his most powerful ally. The King’s controversial marriage to Draga Masin, ten years his senior and a constant guest at his opulent balls, had hastened the monarchy’s accumulation of power. On Draga’s instructions, the officer corps was purged; her coterie first humiliated the Government and then dominated it. For many Serbs the fact that she had borne no children was the final proof of her inherent wickedness. It also meant that the succession was diverted to her two brothers, objects of particular loathing among the junior officer corps which was at the heart of the conspiracy. Not surprisingly, the brothers were killed on the same night as their sister.

If one thing distinguishes Aleksander from Milosevic, it is the latter’s talent for remaining cool in the face of cataclysm. For the Serbian President generating disaster is akin to boiling an egg. The wreckage of countries moves him as little as the prospect of the Serbian economy being sucked down a black hole. His ability to exploit the misfortunes of others for his own political advantage has no precedent in postwar Europe and his amoral opportunism can be seen as a master tool which he handles with breathtaking dexterity. It has been the gun of a nationalist, the pen of a statesman, the cigar of a Stalinist and the swagger-stick of a dictator. Last year the full extent of his political skill became clear: having rigged the elections in order to prevent the opposition taking democratic control of Belgrade, he held out for three months against mass demonstrations and international pressure before finally conceding the mayorship of Belgrade to Zoran Djindjic. Like all Milosevic’s setbacks, however, this one was tactical: soon after the battle was concluded, strains between Djindjic and the other main opposition leader, Vuk Draskovic, erupted in open hostility. Predictably, Milosevic had nurtured the rivalry between the two men, holding secret talks with both and dangling the prospect of ministerial seats in front of their eyes. It was not long before his divide-and-rule approach led to the complete destruction of the united opposition front which had taken months of hard work and political compromise to build.

Today, Milosevic is still manipulating, still producing his toxic rhetoric and still enjoying the fruits of despotism. The most recent victim of his political guile was Robert Gelbard, the American envoy to the former Yugoslavia. The primary goal of American policy in the Balkans at present is to secure a withdrawal of US ground troops from Bosnia at the earliest possible date. The prospect of a more stable Bosnia was given an important boost when Milorad Dodik, a known moderate, became prime minister of the Bosnian Serb Republic despite the opposition of Radovan Karadzic’s nationalist rump. Milosevic played a key role in promoting Dodik, with whom he enjoys a useful, if indirect relationship, and was swiftly rewarded by Gelbard with a relaxation of some of the sanctions still in force against Serbia. Indeed, Gelbard’s announcement on sanctions was accompanied by an astonishingly warm endorsement of Milosevic and a vigorous denunciation of the Kosovo Liberation Army as a ‘terrorist’ outfit.

The State Department, for its part, recently declined to include the KLA on its annual list of known terrorist organisations. The KLA clearly is a terrorist group inasmuch as it carries out random killings: most victims are Serbian police patrolmen, but it has also targeted Albanians loyal to the Milosevic regime as well as Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia who have been dumped on Kosovo by an uncaring Government in Belgrade. The Americans, caught between their unquestioning support for Albanians in Kosovo on the one hand and Milosevic’s charm on the other, now face the old conundrum about one person’s terrorist being another’s freedom fighter.

It is too early to identify with any precision what Milosevic is up to in Kosovo. The most obvious consequence of the attacks by Serb special forces in Drenica is the radicalisation of the Albanian population in Kosovo. Why Milosevic should want this is unclear, although Veton Surroi, a leading Albanian liberal and the editor of the newspaper Koha, has suggested that he is creating a crisis in Kosovo which he can then solve in such a way as to strengthen his hand in Belgrade. The operation in Kosovo has also embarrassed the Americans – Gelbard in particular. Again, it is too soon to know why this is something Milosevic wishes to do, but it is likely to be linked to sanctions and Serbia’s domestic political situation.

Milosevic is a capricious man. Until last year’s demonstrations in Belgrade, his most recently invented personality was that of man of peace – the regional facilitator of the Dayton Agreements. ‘Enough of war,’ he proclaimed to the outside world. Yet during his struggle with the opposition, he toyed briefly with the possibility of open conflict by claiming that his opponents were acting as the handmaidens of Albanian terrorists.

Naturally, the fates of Serbia and Kosovo are not the exclusive responsibility of one man. Yet by distributing just enough of the vast profits generated by war, sanctions and political corruption to the right people, Milosevic has kept a gangster élite in power. This system is inherently unstable, as the dramatic rise in mob-style killings of leading politicians has demonstrated – not a week goes by in Belgrade without a member of the Serbian establishment being assassinated. The most spectacular instance was the recent shooting of Zoran Todorovic, also known as ‘Kundak’ (rifle butt). Todorovic was chief of the JUL, the supposedly socialist party founded, and still masterminded, by Mirjana Markovic, Milosevic’s wife. By coincidence, Kundak, whose killers have never been found, was also the chairman of Jugopetrol. Todorovic’s dual function underlined the degree to which politics and the economy have now become enmeshed in Belgrade. The ruling parties, particularly the SPS and JUL, all have their share of the market and their own independent security operations, and all mistrust one another. The police are simply not involved in these oligarchic games. Unless, of course, they are on the take and influential aides of the Yugoslav President, like Radovan Stojcic, Milosevic’s police boss, who was gunned to death in a Belgrade pizza restaurant last year. Without Milosevic, the delicate network of threats and sweeteners on which the system depends would cease to function.

On the other hand, if Milosevic prevails in Serbia, if violence rather than dialogue remains the primary political discourse, then there can be no security in Kosovo and Macedonia. Should he refuse to go voluntarily, there is only one institution, the Army of Yugoslavia, capable of restoring Serbia’s reputation and preventing another war. This is a formidable challenge. When the Army overthrew King Aleksander and Queen Draga in 1903, they did indeed restore a liberal constitution. But the ringleaders inaugurated a tradition of military interference in Serbian politics which had extraordinary repercussions. The coup was orchestrated by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic, referred to throughout Serbia simply as ‘Apis’. This shadowy, romantic figure subsequently founded the notorious secret society known as the Black Hand, which provided weapons for a group of Serbian nationalist students in Sarajevo whose activities culminated in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the First World War.

A military coup against Milosevic could only square the circle of Serbia’s 20th-century history if it was mounted in the name of democracy. On this occasion, paradoxically, the conspirators would have to renounce military interference in politics: the Army would have to set a firm date for free and fair elections, which it would oversee in conjunction with international observers. No effort would be spared in ensuring the participation of the Albanians of Kosovo in these elections, as well as all Serbs. The Army can play no role in the search for a solution to the Kosovo problem; it can, however, place its full authority behind democratic institutions which would undertake this task – without doubt the gravest problem confronting the region. The perfect officers’ conspiracy would also break with the brutalising spirit of revenge which led Apis’s men to butcher the royal couple: Milosevic and his seedy entourage would, of course, be granted protective custody.

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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.

K.W.C. Sinclair-Loutit
Rabat, Morocco

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.

Dejan Djokic
University of London

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