Tito's bulwark, the army, was set against wrong foe

July 04, 1991|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The late Yugoslav Communist strongman Marshal Tito once fatefully described his army as a force that -- besides protecting the country -- "must protect the achievements of the revolution within the country itself, if that is necessary. This is the way it's got to be."

This week -- faced with the independence declarations June 2 by the republics of Slovenia and Croatia -- the country's generals seemed to click their heels and salute the ghost of their old commander and his idea before going off in tanks and airplanes to keep it alive.

happened after months of dithering in which the country's generals could not make up their minds to use force against Yugoslavia's quarreling republics and political leaders. The massive show of force was only undertaken after the army suffered humiliating setbacks in the first few days of its action in the breakaway republic of Slovenia.

As if waking from a stupor, the generals seem once again unite and prepared to employ the strategy that Tito embedded in their minds. They disregarded the country's warringpoliticians -- including President Stipe Mesic, who is theoretically their commander in chief -- and staged a de facto coup.

"The army has had a state of war imposed upon it" by Slovenia said Gen. Blagoje Adzic, the hard-line chief of staff, in an address on Belgrade television. He criticized Yugoslavia's political leaders for talking peace while his troops were under fire. He added that "defeat or surrender is not an alternative."

The question on the minds of most analysts here is what th military intends to do once it has imposed its will on Slovenia and -- as seems to be its second objective -- imposed order on the republic of Croatia. Western diplomats here fear that the army will try to impose military rule throughout the country, possibly sparking a wider civil war.

Whatever happens, the moves this week are likely to change th nature and character of the Yugoslav army, which started out as a guerrilla force in World War II, eventually becoming one of the most efficient and reliable armies in the south of Europe, before subsiding into the political background following the death in 1980 of Tito.

In the past, the principal threat to Yugoslavia's security was th Soviet bloc. After escaping Stalin's deadly embrace in 1948, Tito was forced to chart a unique security policy. The Russians wanted to bring him down, yet he would not seek security in the West because that would inevitably entail an internal drift toward pluralism and undermine the Communist monopoly of power.

The brutality of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 196 provided a real impetus for Tito to adopt the nation-in-arms defense strategy. A 1969 law created a universal citizen militia, or territorial army, which was to merge with the regular army in case of attack. As much as 70 percent of the country's 24 million population was to be involved in various forms of resistance in case of attack, defending each factory, village, school and housing complex.

The strategy had several important aspects. It blurred th distinction between the army and the people, lessening the likelihood of a military sell-out. It reduced costs by reducing reliance on expensive, sophisticated weaponry. It also recognized the country's topography, its traditions and the nature of the anticipated threat.

By laying stress on self-reliance and defense of the mountainou heartland, Tito fed the army and the people a solid dose of their favorite myth -- that the heroism the Yugoslav peoples displayed fighting guerrilla wars made them invincible to foreign conquest.

The army's role in this scheme was to slow down an enem invasion and gradually retreat into the mountains. This would allow quick mobilization of territorial defenses. In the process, the regular army would transform itself from the holding force into the partisan formation.

The objective was a deterrent against a potential aggressor an -- in case of aggression -- sufficient resistance to create a groundswell of international concern and pressure to stop the fighting. But in the years since Tito's death, the army's role has increasingly become one of sustaining internal unity and stability.

Lately, cracks have appeared in the upper echelons of the office corps as a result of the surge of nationalism in the country. One thing that defines these men is that they are well indoctrinated, 95 percent of them being Communists. They are also of peasant background -- nine out of 10 come from villages. But they are divided by ethnicity. Almost 70 percent are Serbs and Montenegrins. The Croats and Slovenes, who do not hold military careers in high esteem, are underrepresented.

All this seemed to matter less during Tito's lifetime when ther was a deliberate attempt to have all nationalities represented in the top levels of the military. But now that consensus has eroded, as the country's furious ethnic quarrels reached fever pitch this year. As a result, the Serbs seem to dominate the officer corps.

In the final stroke at Tito's concept, the army was not facing th external enemy that existed in his time. Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policies stood in the place of Stalin's. The Warsaw Pact is no more.

Surviving were the strength and determination of the territorial defense forces in the republics -- the very bulwark of the defense strategy Tito had conceived -- but they worked against his own army in this case.

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