Yugoslav national army stays on sidelines as country splinters into parts

March 19, 1991|By New York Times News Service

LJUBLJANA, Yugoslavia -- Is the Yugoslav national army willing to fight, and if so, for whom?

That question has hovered for months during the slow breakup of this patchwork country, and the answer is uncertain.

The army mirrors the divisions within Yugoslavia.

Its officer corps is mainly drawn from Serbia, the largest republic, but the conscripts fully represent the range of ethnic groups that joined to form this country in 1918.

The national army totals 138,000 out of a total national military establishment of about 180,000, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

Many analysts say that the army would break apart if asked to impose nationwide martial law and that the soldiers would stay in their barracks rather than risk fighting people from their own republics.

But others say that the army can be held together and can be a formidable force, even if left only with Serbian draftees and officers. Much of Yugoslavia's considerable arms industry is in Serbia.

Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, appears to be trying to entice the army to his side with his weekend pronouncement that he no longer recognizes the authority of Yugoslavia's collective federal presidency.

But so far the generals are staying on the sidelines.

"The army can only be used as a threat," insisted Srdja Popovic, a well-known human rights lawyer in Belgrade.

"It cannot be used as a tool for establishing a more efficient order in Yugoslavia. Any attempt to do that would only bring deeper chaos."

The two Yugoslav republics moving toward secession, Croatia and Slovenia, have strengthened their paramilitary forces, with a total of 34,000 members under arms or being mobilized. They have warned the national army not to use ethnic violence or anti-Communist protests as a pretext for action.

"If the army becomes involved in Croatia, it will be involved in all of Yugoslavia," said Jelko Kacin, deputy defense minister of Slovenia. "We have already decided, if they intervene in Croatia, we will do what is necessary to do. I'm sure we will not stay on the side. And if there is any intervention, I'm sure it would be the end of Yugoslavia and, at the same moment, the end of the Yugoslav army."

Western diplomats say that the army as an institution stands to lose the most if the current federal system for governing Yugoslavia falls apart.

More than 30 percent of the nation's budget is set aside for the army. Mr. Kacin said its midlevel officers earn $2,300 a month, well above the national average of $400. Throughout the years of communism, the army was considered a stronghold of the Communist Party.

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