Split in army threatens Serbian leader's power

May 25, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- A major split in the Yugoslavian army poses a new threat to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Diplomats said that Mr. Milosevic's policy reversal on Bosnia had created panic within the armed forces but that no single faction at this stage appeared strong enough to take charge.

The split became public with a series of scandalous stories in the news media. But their tabloid flavor and entertainment value have done little to mask the seriousness of the problem, which also deepens the division between Serbs in Serbia and Serbs in Bosnia.

The focus of discontent is Gen. Zivota Panic, the senior commander and chief of staff of the army of Yugoslavia -- the rump republic consisting of Serbia and Montenegro.

General Panic's family members have been accused of corruption in news media reports. The reports say the general's son has lucrative contracts to supply the army with toilet articles and food. The general's daughter is said to have engineered military promotions for her lovers and friends.

General Panic, a career officer, is a protege of Mr. Milosevic's and has supported the Milosevic line. His senior officers also have been expected to do so. That posed no problem as long as Mr. Milosevic was pursuing his dream of a Greater Serbia.

But then Mr. Milosevic made his 11th-hour conversion to the peace plan proposed by U.N. envoy Cyrus R. Vance and Lord Owen of the European Community, and he came into open conflict with the Bosnian Serbs. While General Panic went along, other generals began to protest. Mr. Milosevic promptly sacked the rebels to stop a serious rift that could sweep him from power.

Among generals dispatched into early retirement were the deputy chief of general staff and the head of military intelligence.

The current news media attack has been engineered by them and reflects a division that reaches down through the ranks of the army.

The hard-liners have mounted their assault in concert with their old ally, Vojislav Seselj, leader of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, who holds the balance of power in the Serbian legislature.

Mr. Seselj remains committed to the idea of a Greater Serbia and is now in a position to make Mr. Milosevic's life uncomfortable. Mr. Seselj is also vastly more popular with the Serbs living outside Serbia.

Ironically, Mr. Seselj is a Milosevic creation. The Serbian strongman was worried about the outcome of last December's election and passed a law allowing Serbian refugees from Bosnia and Croatia to vote. They voted predominantly for Mr. Seselj, giving his party 27 percent of the total, second to Mr. Milosevic's 40 percent. This made Mr. Seselj an informal partner in Mr. Milosevic's government.

Mr. Seselj commands paramilitary forces known as the Chetniks, who have carried out "ethnic cleansing" attacks in Bosnia and Serbia.

In leading the attack on General Panic, Mr. Seselj has begun the struggle for the control of the military. He has accused the chief of staff as being thoroughly corrupt.

And a group of 12 retired officers have brought legal charges of corruption against the military leadership.

Mr. Milosevic and his allies in the Supreme Defense Council have decided to form a commission to investigate the charges against General Panic.

The high command also issued a statement accusing Mr. Seselj of "seeking to use the military for his political objectives."

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