December 25, 1995 Vreme Nevs Digest Agency No 221
The Yugoslav Army
The Butchering of the Sacred Cow
by Milos Vasic & Filip Svarm
It's almost five years since the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) started to fall apart. General Veljko Kadijevic, former Defence Minister said three armies were created out of one; one of those was broken apart, the second was saved from defeat by Dayton and the third has become marginal. Those armies lost one state, three wars and all credibility; the damages they inflicted are well known. The process of breaking up Yugoslavia can best be understood through the destruction of the army; one couldn't exist without the other; faced with a choice (preserving communism or the state), the military lost both
On Monday, December 18, the Yugoslav Army (VJ) General Staff said it was "realizing the procedure of achieving regular combat readiness" in part of the army and doing that to "indirectly contribute to the overall calming of the situation in the region". In simple terms, they said that some commands and units were going back to peace time positions from positions towards Bosnia and Croatia. That same day, the first NATO troops arrived in Bosnia; a total of 60,000 combat and support troops will deploy in Bosnia as part of the peace plan. The worst of the generals' nightmares came true after 45 years of socialism: NATO in Bosnia, in the heart of the Balkans!
A French General handed over to a US General at Sarajevo airport. There's worse: there are no partisans to fight the western occupier (perhaps some Chetnik will dare); the occupier was brought in by locals; Moscow is far away and getting farther, the communists are more interested in business; the VJ will have to cut its armaments by a third and the Serbian police is introducing military ranks. That is the situation on the ground on Army Day 1995.
When the Berlin Wall fell along with Communism in Europe, the former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) bragged of being the fourth military power on the continent. Its inventory was seemingly impressive: 1,850 main battle tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles, 590 aircraft, 84 combat ships, 180,000 men under arms including 79,000 officers and non-coms, 510,000 reserves and 1.5 million in the territorial defence (all that according to Dobrica Cosic while he was President; the last official figures). The value of the hardware and other JNA property is now the topic of dispute in talks on dividing the assets of the state with no end in sight. The former Yugoslavia's military industry earned about 1.5 billion dollars from exports a year; some former conscripts (and some officers) were skeptical about that but wise enough not to voice their opinions in public.
The JNA saw its first troubles in the mid-1980s, first in Kosovo and then Slovenia; it lost its virginity in Kosovo in the first use of the military against the population. The problem was and still is conceptual: the JNA, as a system, an organism that is more than just a gathering of individuals, simply could not comprehend the true nature of events that ensued. The Kosovo crisis was declared a counter-revolution instead of a crisis of demography. When special measures were due to be imposed in Kosovo in 1989 because the previous policies were going nowhere, Borisav Jovic sent Petar Gracanin (retired general and federal internal affairs minister) to say that the "police is tired" and to "persistently defend the stand that he needs the help of the army if he didn't want all the blame to fall on him. I believe he understood that," Jovic said.
Something else began in Slovenia, something that caused great concern to the JNA in the long term: open criticism of the military establishment was increasingly loud; the sacred cow status was lost; "Mladina" weekly (the first publication that was openly critical of the establishment in Yugoslavia) snapped directly at defence minister Admiral Branko Mamula and soon the Slovenian public started openly debating defence taboos.
Things picked up speed in 1990. Non-communist parties came to power everywhere except in Serbia and Montenegro; the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY) was practically disbanded in a clash between reformed and unreformed communists at the 14th and last party congress early that year. The LCY organization in the JNA was worried.
That systematic identification of Yugoslavia with socialism was present to the end in the JNA as the official dogma: Yugoslavia can't exist if it isn't socialist. What the JNA refused to understand is the nature of the choice that was opening up in front of it: should it save the state of Yugoslavia or communism. In that hesitation nothing was saved and even the JNA was destroyed. Both Slobodan Milosevic and Jovic blamed the army for hesitating along with everyone else who wanted to preserve Yugoslavia.
The JNA had plans for "special measures" (Kadijevic told Jovic about them). The only remaining question was who would be affected by the special measures. Milosevic and Jovic suspected that would include them.
That was the plan the JNA had for the entire country; it had indications of support from the great powers. The plan included freezing political life for at leas six months; disbanding parties and direct rule, internment for certain people and creating conditions for democratic elections across Yugoslavia after a given period.
Obviously, that was as unacceptable to Milosevic as to the other leaders. But that didn't prevent him and Jovic from systematically "breaking down" Kadijevic for months, explaining that the Yugoslavia created in that way would be nothing. They suggested other plans and special measures, sought legal excuses for them, built complex legal constructions, all with the same goal in mind: getting the army to intervene and create the possibility of reconstructing the one-party system.
The first opportunity came on March 9, 1991. In an effort to stage a pre-emptive strike the incident in Pakrac was organized on March 2: Milosevic's propaganda machine tried to turn the rebellion of a few Serb policemen and an intervention by the Croatian police into genocide (Vecernje Novosti reported 40 dead in a special issue). The JNA intervened and deployed between the sides and the incident ended peacefully. When that attempt failed, they tried with March 9 when the police were sent in to break up an opposition rally in Belgrade that would have ended peacefully.
The tanks ordered out onto the streets of Belgrade were an unprecedented cause for embarrassment for the JNA and Kadijevic, some sources said, was furious (the general staff knew what was happening as we heard from the taped phone call between Blagoje Adzic and Serbian police minister Radmilo Bogdanovic on March 9).
When two policemen were killed (one Serb and one Croat) at Plitvice on April 1, the JNA started playing its role of buffer. In all the incidents in Croatia up to mid-July, the JNA deployed between the Serbs and Croats, turning its guns towards the Croats, practically setting what Jovic in his dairy and Kadijevic in his memoirs called the borders of the future state. The JNA missed its first chance to save Yugoslavia by accepting the theory that disobedient republics should be thrown out of the federation.
The first in line was Slovenia which declared independence on June 26, 1991. That night JNA units began deploying along the borders of the former Yugoslavia under the orders of the state presidency and federal government. That plan had two stages: in the first there were 137 border crossings and strategic points to be taken (134 were taken by June 30); the second stage, if there was any organized armed resistance, would be the military occupation of all of Slovenia and imposition of a state of emergency and military rule.
On July 1, the supreme command staff (an informal body with jurisdiction that was not clear) met. Kadijevic said the conditions were right for the second stage of the plan and asked permission for the fifth army group to start implementing it because it was already deployed and ready (the stories of unarmed recruits were propaganda). Jovic then played his famous role: why hold them if they don't want to stay? Let them go, once the Slovenians leave things will be different with the Croats and so on.
Kadijevic's close associate said the general was stunned by what had happened to him: he had been drawn out on thin ice.
On July 5, Jovic and Milosevic demanded that Kadijevic: respond fiercely to the Slovenians with all means available and then withdraw from the republic; deploy his troops in territories in Croatia (and Herzegovina) where Serbs live; completely eliminate Slovenians and Croats from the JNA.
Kadijevic accepted everything, Jovic said, but delayed the ethnic cleansing of the army.
In Slovenia, the JNA packed up and left since the republic had to be pushed out even at the cost of JNA dead and the first Balkan secessionist war ended. Now, it was Croatia's turn.
Franjo Tudjman and his ruling HDZ couldn't wait to be pushed out of Yugoslavia but they didn't want to leave territory behind. Early in July, the Croatian armed forces were better armed and more numerous but still not a problem for the JNA and armed Serbs.
The JNA political platform and ideology that summer was anti fascism which meant: the Croats are good but the HDZ isn't. The start of that second Balkan war was on July 2 when an armored division headed west from Belgrade. On July 1, an incident happened in the federal defence ministry: a group of young officers under arms barged in and demanded action in Slovenia. The incident ended peacefully but it was a warning to be remembered.
Instead of waging war properly and advancing to Zagreb, which it could with a minimum loss of life, the JNA deployed in Croatia and hesitated. The army had huge draft problems: an extremely low response and constant rebellions by reserves. Its men wouldn't wage war without a clear goal; without a state of war which was never declared.
In July 1991, the federal defence ministry adopted what it would later call guidelines or instructions for volunteers to become members of the armed forces. Those para-military formations under the banner of political parties and under the control of the Serbian state security and police were legalized. The JNA was no longer Yugo-communist but Serb-Chetnik to use the Croat derogatory names. That meant that bearded and drunk volunteers began looting, committing war crimes, humiliating active officers and giving the JNA a bad name in Eastern Slavonia and later the Krajina.
Croatia responded by blockading JNA barracks everywhere. It isn't clear why the JNA allowed itself to wait for the end of summer in towns under the control of the Croatian authorities instead of doing what it had been trained to do: deploy in the countryside and move towards the closest friendly formations. That hesitation could be interpreted as waiting for the promised coup in Moscow which failed on August 19, 1991 despite the support of Milosevic's ruling SPS. It also seems that the JNA needed time to understand that its job was to secure the borders of the future state.
The fierce response strategy was worded in a warning for the supreme command on October 1: "For every JNA facility that is attacked or captured we will immediately destroy a vital facility in Croatia; for every garrison that is attacked or captured we will destroy vital facilities in the town that housed the garrison". That dragged on to the fall of Vukovar and the vance plan.
The Vance plan was signed, the JNA withdrew from Slovenia and Croatia but promised the Serbs in Croatia that it would stay in Bosnia and guard them.
Early in 1992 in an incident that was never clarified, a Yugoslav air force plane downed an EU observer mission helicopter; Kadijevic and Jurjevic resigned; Adzic became acting minister. In January 1992, some high ranking JNA officers voiced fears of war in Bosnia
The ensuing events are illustration enough unto themselves: first, through the Opera scandal the JNA security department was eliminated; then the situation in Bosnia escalated; we know now that Karadzic's people requested officers, equipment and weapons from the fourth army group "under federal defence ministry orders of February 21, 1992".
Early in May, Milosevic struck: he retired 38 generals at once (Adzic resigned). That took the total of generals the JNA lost since Slovenia to 126. The Federal Republic of Yugoslav was declared in a hurry on April 27, 1992 and the JNA became the Yugoslav Army (VJ).
The Bosnian part of the JNA was previously systematically filled with Serbs born in Bosnia and stayed in Bosnia and Herzegovina as the future Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) with huge stockpiles of weapons and ammunition. The army got out of Bosnia any way it could: it lost men to ambushes in Sarajevo and Tuzla and materiel to Serbs who didn't want to see it leave Bosnia. Having washed its hands the army withdrew to Yugoslavia and Serbia was not at war.
The loss of Bosnia and Herzegovina was the final blow for the JNA. Whoever holds Bosnia, holds the Balkans; all the defence plans since 1918 have been based on holding Bosnia; billions of dollars were invested in military installations there including airports, armories, underground command centers and the military industry. How the army was convinced to take just half of its inventory out of Bosnia remains a mystery at least until Jovic writes another book.
"We created three armies out of one (the VJ, BSA and Krajina Serb Army)," Kadijevic said in his book.
Where are those armies now?
The Krajina Serb Army (SVK) was defeated and no longer exists; the BSA was saved from more, perhaps fatal, defeat by the Dayton agreement; the VJ has been marginalized, it's poor and loses experts all the time. Politically, the VJ no longer means anything having been purged of undesirables.
This sad but educational story is a story of institutional stupidity, a lack of a sense of reality, a shortage of civic courage and of the complete lack of corporate spirit in a communist army. In any case, that army was made the way it was with that goal in mind.