Milosevic fights back

The resurgence of loyalists to the deposed Yugoslav president brings Belgrade back to the brink of danger.


Milosevic fights back

The tattered remains of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime resurfaced in Yugoslavia on Wednesday — showing just how difficult it will be for the country’s week-old Democratic revolution to take hold. As allies of deposed former president Milosevic claimed command of Serbia’s powerful Interior Ministry, newly elected Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and his supporters battled for control of the national security forces that will determine the country’s balance of power.

Coming five days after Milosevic formally announced his defeat to Kostunica, the confrontation reveals how close Serbia is to unrest as the political tug-of-war escalates between supporters of Kostunica’s plans for sweeping democratic reform and those who still have a stake in the old regime.

Opposition leaders went into crisis meetings with Kostunica after a leader of Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) claimed that a Milosevic ally, Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic, has assumed control of the 100,000-man strong Serbian police — a high-tech force with armored vehicles that bears a closer resemblance to a paramilitary squad than a law enforcement agency. The announcement is one of several recent clues that Milosevic is fighting to retain control over key institutions in Serbia.

Opposition leaders publicly downplayed the seriousness of the claim — made by Branislav Ivkovic, a member of Milosevic’s SPS — that Milosevic loyalist Marjanovic should head Serbia’s police forces. The announcement follows the forced resignation Monday of Serbia’s Interior Minister, Vlajko Stojiljkovic — one of the half-dozen Milosevic allies who have resigned from their posts this week.

“The situation is a little bit confusing,” opposition spokeswoman Vesna Bakic said Wednesday night. “Prime Minister Marjanovic took over the police, which in itself is not such a big deal because the minister in charge of the matter resigned on Monday. On the other hand, there are rumors that the SPS might try to take over national TV using the police, and everyone is very concerned,” Bakic cautioned.

“That government can declare itself not only legal but omnipotent, but it’s a fact of life they have no control over 80 percent of the processes in the country,” said opposition leader Zoran Djindjic. “We are tired of haggling and manipulations.”

But it was Djindjic, a well-known opposition politician and Kostunica’s former campaign manager, who warned only a day earlier that factions of Serbia’s police forces remained loyal to Milosevic. Djindjic’s Democratic Party is one of the strongest opposition forces in Serbia, and he retains a large security detail. He’s also been at the center of Kostunica-backed efforts to take control of Serbia’s police forces, which served as an almost paramilitary force under Milosevic.

On Tuesday, Serbian police believed to be loyal to Milosevic arrested Djindjic’s driver and the bodyguard of his aide Cedomir Jovanovic, although they later released the men.

An opposition activist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that command of Serbia’s powerful secret police, the Sluzba Derzavnost Bezbednost (SDB), remains in the hands of Rade Markovic, one of Milosevic’s closest associates. Markovic, who Serbian political analysts describe as ruthless and secretive, is a close advisor to Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic (no relation), and once served as the personal guard to their son Marko.

But in a sign of how dangerously factionalized institutions in Serbia have become since Milosevic’s supposed departure from power Friday, the head of Djindjic’s personal security is said to have cinched control of the red beret special forces branch of the plainclothes SDB secret police. (The parent SDB organization, meanwhile, is still controlled by a Milosevic loyalist.)

According to the opposition activist, conflict between pro-Milosevic and pro-opposition police factions became so pitched at one point this week that masked pro-Milosevic police seized the fourth floor of a Belgrade police headquarters, while police forces supporting Kostunica retained control of the rest of the building.

“I hear such terrifying stories every day,” said the opposition activist, who serves as aide to a leader of one of the 18 opposition parties that supported Kostunica’s candidacy.

In yet another troubling sign that Kostunica has so far failed to consolidate his control over Serbia’s armed forces, Belgrade’s independent Radio B292 reported Wednesday that the Yugoslav army issued a statement warning Kostunica of the “negative consequences” of replacing any of the top commanders. The announcement, issued after Kostunica met with the Yugoslav military generals Wednesday, followed statements by Kostunica and Djindjic that they intended to replace Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic — the force’s top general and a relative by marriage to Milosevic — with Gen. Momcilo Perisic. Milosevic sacked Perisic, then a commander of the Yugoslav army, in 1998. He now heads his own opposition party, which supports Kostunica and democratic reforms.

Another standoff between the old and new regimes reportedly occurred at the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry, where opposition leader Zarko Korac said he was told by the current foreign minister that some employees had actually taken up arms this week to prevent the destruction of sensitive documents concerning possible plans for regime officials to seek asylum abroad. Zoran Janajkovic, a Milosevic ally who is believed to head the Foreign Ministry internal intelligence service, reportedly attempted to seize and destroy the documents until he was stopped by colleagues.

Dozens of regime officials are believed to have fled abroad in the past few days. Among the most important is Milosevic’s son Marko, who on Monday was denied entrance into China and put back on the next plane to Moscow. (Marko, perhaps best known internationally as the proprietor of the Bambiland theme park and Madonna disco, also had his own gas, cigarette, alcohol and drug smuggling operation in Serbia.) Milosevic’s financier and Beogradska Bank director Borka Vucic, is also reported to have flown to China, where much of the regime’s money has allegedly been transferred during the past two years. Top Milosevic financier Vanja Bokan, an underworld figure who is reported to have invested regime money in Western stock markets, was assassinated last Thursday in Athens, Greece.

A top deputy to Kostunica, who would only be quoted on condition of anonymity, said it was in order to prevent just such flight of state assets that the opposition is aggressively moving to seize control of Serbian businesses from Milosevic allies.

“We want to begin making the necessary changes as soon as possible, so as to take the country out of the deep crisis”, Zoran Sami, a vice president in Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia told journalists Tuesday. “The people have placed their trust in the opposition. In the confusion that was created, it was noticed that officials of the outgoing regime were using the chaos for plunder on a horrendous scale … We have taken over some of these institutions only temporarily to prevent this plunder.”

And moderate opposition leader Zarko Korac, warning of a possible coup attempt, threatened to send people back into the streets if Milosevic’s allies tried to usurp power from Kostunica.

“We most seriously caution the public that plunderers, usurpers and violent people from [Mira Markovic's party] and Milosevic’s SPS are getting ready for a dangerous adventure of their illegal return to power,” Korac said late Tuesday.

At least a dozen Milosevic allies have resigned since his ouster on Oct. 5, along them Yugoslav Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic; Serbian police minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic; the Yugoslav health minister; the Serbian tourism, health and education ministers; and Belgrade’s top cop, who ordered police to resist efforts to overtake the Yugoslav Parliament building. Though the spate of resignations initially encouraged opposition supporters that the vestiges of Milosevic’s regime would bow out gracefully, Wednesday’s events instead reveal a deep-seated effort by Milosevic’s proxies to retain control of strategic Serbian institutions.

Though Kostunica, as president, in theory controls Yugoslav federal institutions such as the army and foreign ministry, much of the real power resides with the republics. Yugoslavia’s two republics — Serbia, with 10 million people; and Montenegro, with about 650,000 people — both maintain broad autonomous powers. (For the past two years, Montenegro has steered a path away from Belgrade toward independence and closer ties with the West.) Many believe that Milosevic may try to return to republic politics, while letting Kostunica retain control over the relatively empty shell of the Yugoslav federation.

Kostunica, a constitutional law professor, had tried to use the momentum of his ascent to power to dissolve the Serbian government and call for early presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 17. But his efforts have been met with significant resistance. For two days, he has attempted to create a temporary technical government to rule in the interim. But Milosevic supporters say they want to preserve their dominance of the Serbian government. Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, who like Milosevic has been indicted for war crimes, has refused to resign. And leaders of Milosevic’s SPS party refuse to engage in discussions with the opposition about the formation of a temporary Serbian government — and are threatening to block early Serbian elections.

Most Western governments have made the lifting of sanctions and Yugoslavia’s participation in international institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund contingent on Milosevic’s departure from political life. Last year the U.N. war crimes tribunal charged Milosevic and four other top deputies, including army head Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic and police minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, with war crimes.

Foreign diplomats — including French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, U.S. Ambassador William Montgomery and Bodo Hombach, head of a regional stability pact for Southeastern Europe — have flooded Belgrade to congratulate Kostunica on his election. But the diplomatic well-wishes may be premature given Milosevic’s demonstrated intention to remain influential in and destructive to Serbian political life.

The Serbian public’s ardent desire to end the sanctions, reintegrate with Europe and rebuild Yugoslavia’s shattered economy was a major impetus behind the revolution that elevated Kostunica to power. Serbian analysts believe now that because Serbs have had a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, it will compel them to drive Milosevic and his cronies from power.

The revolution in Yugoslavia — spawned at the ballot box and played out dramatically on the streets of Serbia last week — has now spread to almost every office building, bank, police station and ministry in the country.

“You know what Stalin did in 1935-1938, the purges. Well we have the same type of thing in Serbia now,” said Bojan el Pinto, a Serbian political analyst and journalist, Wednesday. “There will not be shootings here. But all of those people in government institutions and public companies who are not loyal to the opposition will probably find themselves facing early retirement.”

Political scientist Predrag Simic agrees. “[W]hat we are seeing now in state ministries and companies is revolution. It has turned out that electoral victory for Kostunica did not totally change the political system.”

Those who had hitched their coattails to Milosevic’s party over the past 13 years now find themselves being purged, humiliated and attacked by their angry fellow employees. Dozens of public company heads, many appointed to their posts as a reward for their loyalty to Milosevic, have been chased out of their offices by angry mobs of those who lost their jobs or were stalled in their careers because they were not useful players in Milosevic’s system of patronage.

Former Serbian prime minister and Milosevic ally Radoman Bozovic is one executive chased out by employees unsympathetic to his new status this week. Bozovic was president of the large Yugoslav import-export company Genex. Monday, a “crisis committee” made up of some 400 laid-off Genex employees stormed Bozovic’s offices, kicked him out and halted all transfer of company funds so, they said, he couldn’t flee the country or steal from the company.

Bozovic called a press conference Wednesday to defend his reputation, his sound management of Genex and to appeal for an end to the mob takeover of Serbian institutions.

“This is not the way the opposition should try to take over firms,” Bozovic said Wednesday. “Not with anarchy, not with violence. The change of government should happen in a legal way. There is an important question about respect and balance. The employees of state and public enterprises should vote on who its new management should be,” Bozovic warned.

Even those sympathetic to the opposition concede that the seizure of public companies by members of seemingly ad hoc crisis committees is getting out of control.

“It seems a lot of directors of state companies are now trying to destroy some documentation, traces of their previous activities, whose methods were basically borrowed from the Mafia,” Nenad Stefanovic, a journalist with the Belgrade weekly Vreme, said Wednesday. “But I believe opposition leaders will find a way out of this situation. They will try to cancel, as soon as possible, these crisis committees and activities because behind them a lot of ugly things are happening. A lot of people are going with a few armed bodyguards, declaring themselves some company’s crisis committee and trying to take them over.”

“We are in the middle of a very dangerous power vacuum. The situation is very chaotic,” Stefanovic said. “We have a new president of Yugoslavia. But we don’t have a federal government because the prime minister resigned. The Serbian government doesn’t work because half its ministers have resigned … This is a very dangerous period. Only the symbol of power has changed hands, at the presidential level, to Kostunica. Everything else is 50-50.”

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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