Facing Civil War: All His Men
4 January 1997
On Thursday, December 26, at 5:00 p.m., central Belgrade’s Terazije square looked like something out of Costa Gavras’ Z or images of Italy in 1924: plain clothes hooligans armed with police batons were freely beating up anyone they could get their hands on while a police cordon just stood by watching. Even worse, they went after TV crews and even hit a Serbian state TV (RTS) cameraman who finally managed to pull out his press card and they left him alone. There were three of those incidents: first the group of organized men rushed onto the square, injuring several people including Rade Radovanovic, leader of the RTS independent union. A little later on the square another group of 11 men pulled out their batons and beat up whoever they could grab, especially camera crews. The third incident happened in front of city hall and it could have turned ugly because the hooligans were surrounded by a large group of people before someone called the police. The police led the group away into city hall. At least one TV crew got pictures of the incidents and the pictures were seen across the world that evening. An analysis of the unedited tapes shows several things: the hooligans were very confident and went around freely; the uniformed police never intervened; the batons the men in civilian clothes were carrying were police issue and the group surrounded at city hall even had the white batons of the traffic police. Later, the hooligans were identified as members of a Serbian police unit.
What does all this mean? When the uniformed police intervenes to restore law and order and beats up people and reporters who don’t get away in time, that is seen as a customary and unavoidable byproduct. That is an excess of authority but is also considered customary. The Serbian police showed that it can be disciplined and control large crowds with a minimal use of force. The authorities who feel they are legitimate and right will use necessary force openly in the form of the uniformed police and will stand behind its decision. The use of anonymous hooligans in plain clothes but with police issue batons which you can’t buy anywhere and are a banned weapon in this country was a message from the Leader and the Family to the people: get smart or get beaten both inside and out of institutions. That is where all the difference lies: legitimate authorities will use force institutionally; frightened authorities, aware that they are losing legitimacy will make the mistake the Family made that Thursday.
The state of public and state security in Belgrade has the highest priority; operative decisions on action in Belgrade are taken at the highest political and police levels. The use of plain clothes police as fascist hooligans is one of those decisions and no effort to blame lower ranking civil servants will be accepted as convincing. If things have gone that far then someone must be losing his nerve. The opposition and unions said that if something like that happens again they’ll take self-defense measures; that will be an escalation of violence which will only shorten the agony.
If the Family opts for civil war who can it count on? Obviously it is counting on the police as its main force but that isn’t as simple as it seems. To achieve the critical mass needed for efficient police support for a state of emergency, i.e. personal dictatorship, certain psychological conditions are needed like the death of a policeman or some similar sudden escalation of violence. The police are a solid world, closed up and they don’t allow anyone to go after their people. On the other hand, everything has an ending: the amount of people on the street and the overall mood in Serbia are slowly biting into the police motivation to defend the regime at any cost.
The actions of the police will depend on the overall political mood in Serbia. Even if the Family opts for a coup d’etat and dictatorship, the first days of resistance will be crucial to the behavior of the police: if resistance is massive and fierce the outcome will be uncertain. The other thing, the SPS nomenclature and it Opus Dei; JUL isn’t insignificant because there are a lot of them and they’re organized but there are problems there: there is a visible crumbling and rising tension within. The counter-rally on December 24 pushed them back fundamentally: they were embarrassed and the people bussed in to Belgrade took bad news back to the rest of the republic. The internal SPS-JUL strife is growing as well.
Even if things were ideal in the main regime pillars and they aren’t, there can be no civil war or state of emergency without at least silent support from the Yugoslav Army (VJ). The VJ’s attitude towards the Family is conditioned by the entire history of the Balkans since 1991: VJ officers haven’t forgotten their embarrassment on March 9, 1991, nor the three wars they lost nor the purges of the army. In April 1996, VJ chief of staff General Momcilo Perisic said he had things to tell the press but won’t because he’s a disciplined soldier. All through this crisis the VJ has kept silent demonstratively; Perisic went to Romania demonstratively and even more demonstratively he didn’t appear on Milosevic’s sofa during a visit by the Ukrainian defense minister; FRY Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic openly complained about the military budget in federal parliament; VJ salaries were systematically late. The people fraternized with soldiers who found themselves at protests by chance at least twice.
Then, just before the New Year, a letter by "a large group of officers" in the Nis army district, especially the 63d parachute brigade, appeared. That document was titled Excerpts From a Declaration sent to the students of Nis, the Nais independent TV station, Telegraf daily, General Perisic and Slobodan Milosevic. The document says the "moment is historic", that "if we don’t get smart we’ll only go to ruin", that "we are non-political" but also that "we are not indifferent to where Serbia is heading". It warned the Zajedno coalition that "power is sweet" and to watch what they’re doing or the army and students will topple them in six months and not to "promise too much". It told Slobodan Milosevic to "get smart" and "stand with the people". It said Milosevic had "belittled officers in the war of 91/92 and tried to turn them into minor figures in this country (traditionally a very serious accusation). The document also says he is the only one to blame for the war. The anonymous officers warned the Serbian president that "we fell for your trick once that the former Yugoslav National Army was the only one to blame for the breakup of the former state" and that "we won’t allow Serbia to be ruined and we certainly won’t side against our people" and that "if need be we’ll stand at the head of the Serbian people" and that their weapons will never be turned against the people. The authenticity of the document is still under dispute; on the other hand, no conspirator has ever declared himself publicly. The form is being disputed but the content is convincing: a large number of army officers feel what the letter says.
When the letter was circulated among the public an unpleasant silence ensued. Some army sources said a letter of that content really was sent; other sources said Perisic went on a sudden trip to Nis. Then, on December 30, the General Staff Information Service issued a statement which said a lot of things: we’re non-political and a factor of stability and integrity and so on. The only thing not in the statement is the only thing Milosevic cares about: there is no direct, nor in fact any, support from the VJ to Milosevic against the opposition; the general staff didn’t attack the opposition.
Milosevic’s time is running out; the Family has increasingly less options. The only way to secure His political survival is in compromising the people around Him; bring them to a point where they can’t go back and can’t get out. He was always the champion in doing just that and we should fear a coup d’etat aimed at compromising the state apparatus and his followers and bringing them to a point where they have only one way out: stay with Him to the end. We’ll see soon whether the police, army, state apparatus and Milosevic followers agree to be dragged into that.