Russian commander in Croatia abruptly replaced 2 officers lose U.N. posts amid charges of corruption and collusion with Serbs

February 21, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

EDRUT, CROATIA — ERDUT, Croatia -- Russia's senior United Nations commander in Croatia and his deputy were abruptly replaced late last year following charges that they used their office for personal gain and colluded with the Serbs, U.N. sources have revealed.

Col. Alexander Khromchenkov and his deputy, Battalion Cmdr. Viktor Loginov, sold U.N. gasoline on the black market and helped Serbian paramilitaries retrieve weapons and carry out maneuvers, according to the U.N. sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. In one instance, they said, Commander Loginov accepted a white Mercedes sedan as a gift from the Serbs.

The two officers suddenly returned to Russia after a visit by four Russian generals.

"We had substantial discussions with the Russians about peacekeeping at a very high level," said a senior U.N. official. "They sent people to . . . see the situation. Now he [Colonel Khromchenkov] is back in Russia and does not have a command."

The Russians remain in command of the U.N. forces in the eastern sector. Two new Russians -- a general and a colonel -- were sent to replace Colonel Khromchenkov and Commander Loginov.

The Russian troops in Croatia represent Moscow's first participation in a U.N. peacekeeping mission since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Some U.N. officials say the officers' action reflected the sort of black market activity that is common in Russia, as well as ignorance that better conduct is expected when Russian soldiers are serving under the U.N. flag.

"In Russia, it's a life's work to beat the system," said a U.N. official. "They do not know how to behave on an international mission where one is on one's best behavior."

The affair has also exacerbated a lingering question inside U.N. circles: Given Russia's close historic and social ties to Serbia, how did the Russians come to be assigned command of the sensitive eastern sector of Croatia, bordering Serbia?

Serbia is widely viewed as the aggressor in the ethnic warfare that has erupted since Yugoslav republics declared independence. The Serbs have looked to Russia to help restrain international action.

Russian irregulars are said to be helping on the Serbian side of the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Russian Parliament passed a resolution last week urging greater sympathy toward Serbia in the Balkans conflict.

Evidently fearful of a scandal, the Russians and the United Nations tried to keep a lid of secrecy on the affair involving the Russian commander in Croatia. U.N. officials as well as non-Russian U.N. peacekeeping soldiers have spoken only privately about the event, and then only on condition of anonymity.

The official line is that there was nothing unusual about the sudden departures: Commander Loginov was nearing the end of his tour of duty, and Colonel Khromchenkov was needed for another post back in Russia.

The litany of complaints against the Russians included giving Serbs access to weapons that had been moved to a U.N. storage house under the cease-fire arrangements in Croatia. Serbian militiamen had given up the arms early last year under the first phase of an international peace plan.

The Serbs were supposed to have the key to one lock at the storage house, while the United Nations retaining the key to a second lock. Neither was supposed to have access to the weapons without the other.

It was assumed this had been done until a British medical unit stationed in nearby Vukovar reported seeing on maneuvers tanks and other weaponry that were supposed to be under lock and key. An investigation revealed the Russians had given the Serbs one complete set of keys, according to U.N. officers.

The Russians are also were said to have been ordered three times, including once by the overall U.N. commander, Gen. Satish Nambiar, to move their base from the town of Erdut to Vukovar. They have failed to do so.

"If we had tried that, we would have been court-martialed," said one disgruntled U.N. soldier from Belgium. The Belgian troops are part of the peacekeeping force in the Croatia sector, along with Luxembourg soldiers, but they are under Russian command.

By remaining in Erdut, the Russians have continued to lack enough space to set up a U.N. field kitchen as specified under their mandate. That has led them to use U.N. funds to contract meals from local Serbs at $16 per day per soldier, far more than the normal U.N. cap of $10. The average monthly salary for Serbs is about $50.

For some U.N. officials, the apparent collusion is not surprising.

The town of Erdut is a virtual monopoly controlled by Zeljko Raznjatkovic, known as "Arkan," one of the most feared Serbian warlords. His main base camp is also in Erdut, almost side by side with the Russian U.N. camp.

Several senior and junior U.N. soldiers suspect that the Russians have skimmed U.N. cash off in the food deal. They say that they have no doubt the Russians are selling U.N. supplies, including gasoline, on the black market. But they admit that they have no hard evidence.

"Without evidence, what can you do?" shrugged one.

As early as last autumn, Western diplomats in Belgrade complained that only Belgian and Luxembourg U.N. forces were taking their mission seriously and patrolling their part of the sector at night.

One said at the time, "The Russians stay in their barracks at night. Serbs take Croat men out of their homes and play games with them, making them run across minefields."

Non-Russian U.N. personnel in the sector say privately they think such abuse is continuing.

"Every few nights you hear wailing out there, and someone is dead," said one.

One U.N. soldier was surprised at apparent Russian greed. "A Russian soldier here should be a happy man," he said. Soldiers in the U.N. mission receive a far higher salary than in Russia -- about $900 per month.

The beneficiaries of this relative fortune, he said, include Russian prostitutes who have moved into local hotels.

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