January 11, 1997 Vreme News Digest Agency No 275

The Students Between the Army and Police

Two Colors: Blue and Green

by Dejan Anastastijevic

The different treatment given to the student delegation in General Perisic’s and Serbian Internal Affairs Minister Zoran Sokolovic’s cabinets shows the different approaches to the Serbian regime’s crisis by the military and police

When student protest leaders said they would ask for meetings with Yugoslav Army (VJ) chief of staff General Momcilo Perisic and Serbian Internal Affairs Minister Zoran Sokolovic on Orthodox Christmas day few people believed both men would receive the delegation. On January 6 both Yugoslavia’s top soldier and Serbia’s top policeman found the time to talk to the students. Those talks differed almost completely.

General Perisic received the student delegation right on time (10:00 a.m.) in a way that shows the VJ general staff was giving them VIP treatment. The delegation headed by spokesman Dusan Vasiljevic met with Perisic for almost an hour and a half and left the building satisfied. The meeting was also attended by the commanders of the air force and land forces and the heads of the VJ information and security departments.

Cedomir Jovanovic, one of the five students who saw the generals that day, was specific about the meeting: "Perisic said we’re on the same side. Both of us want the constitution respected," he said and added that both the army and the students are "above politics".

"They asked us what we intend to do and why we’re marching and we explained that the walks have raised morale and preserved the energy of the student protest and that it was like when an officer commands his troops to get out of their trucks at sub-zero temperatures and march," Jovanovic said.

A statement issued after the meeting by the VJ information department didn’t claim that the army is on the same side as the students but something like a sympathetic stand is visible under the usual phrasing. Another important conclusion in that statement is that the student protests are peaceful and that is an indirect condemnation of the police blockade of their daily protest walks. The overall impression is that Perisic stopped one step short of providing open support for the students. Also, the presence of the chiefs of key VJ sectors is a clear signal that he isn’t alone in his stand.

An obvious precedent was set in the student meeting with the VJ chiefs because the army has never officially and directly communicated with a political organization outside the regime, especially an organization that is against the regime. We’re witness to a situation in which key words which were a sign of affiliation to the Milosevic regime suddenly have a completely different meaning. Perisic’s gesture, if it turns out not to be just an excess, could mean the army is slowly coming out of the shell it has been trapped in since Tito’s time. If the breakup of the state and three lost wars weren’t cause enough to come out of that shell then this could be the final opportunity.

The student delegation was given a completely different reception by Serbian Internal Affairs Minister Zoran Sokolovic. He left them waiting for two hours and then received them with his cabinet chief. Judging by what the student delegation said at a press conference that afternoon there was no talk at the meeting. The students said they asked Sokolovic to withdraw the special police units from central Belgrade so they could continue their walks. Sokolovic told them that the police is acting in accordance with the law. The students insisted on their right to protest in pedestrian zones without disrupting traffic. Sokolovic repeated that the police is acting in accordance with the law. The students told Sokolovic that they would implement a new strategy with the police on January 9 and Sokolovic told them the police would continue acting in accordance with the law. When the students tried to raise the question of men in plain clothes beating people on the streets on December 26 Sokolovic told them he knew nothing about that and added that the police is acting in accordance with the law. That’s where it ended. The internal affairs ministry information department didn’t issue any statement.

So, Sokolovic either doesn’t know or won’t say who beat people up on December 26, doesn’t know or won’t say who shot Ivica Lazovic and beat Predrag Starcevic to death. Since he said the police don't use violence he either doesn’t know or isn’t interested in who arrested and beat up Dejan Bulatovic. Regardless of whether he’s lying or telling the truth, Sokolovic doesn’t deserve to stay in his post because of his arrogance and/or ignorance. And something else is also indicative: the meeting wasn’t attended by two men who, unlike Sokolovic, know very well what the police do and why: assistant ministers police General Radovan Stojcic Badza and civilian Jovica Stanisic (the Serbian state security chief). Their failure to attend the meeting could mean one of two things: either they had more important things to do or they had nothing to say to the students.