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.

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.