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Yugoslav Army Brass Challenges Milosevic

Serbian president calls probe of top general to placate hard-liners angered by his decision to back UN peace plan

By Jonathan S. LandaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 24, 1993


THE highest general of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army is under investigation for alleged corruption and nepotism in an unprecedented scandal that is rocking the political and military hierarchies of the Serbia-Montenegro union.

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Col. Gen. Zivota Panic, the Yugoslav Army chief of staff, denies the allegations, the most serious of which are that he arranged to have his son supply the military with potatoes, toilet paper, and other goods at prices higher than those set by the state.

Political analysts believe that whatever the veracity of the charges, deeper motives are at work in the case. The timing of the allegations, the extraordinary way in which they emerged, and the targeting of the chief of an officer corps in which corruption is reputedly rife leave no question that an intense power struggle is under way, analysts say.

With the rarified heights of the Yugoslav military still a highly secretive and privileged world, there is considerable disagreement over the precise alignment of the sides in contention.

The majority view is that President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia is battling for political dominance with hard-line Serb nationalist generals angered by his decision to back the Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina and shut off military aid to the Bosnian Serbs. "Milosevic has switched policy and the generals are not necessarily following him," says Stefan Niksic, a commentator. "He needs the Army to obey his rules and cut all relations with the Bosnian Serbs."

The hard-liners, most analysts say, are following Vojislav Seselj, a suspected war criminal and leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, Serbia's number two party. Mr. Seselj has emerged as the main critic of Mr. Milosevic's "betrayal" of the Bosnian Serbs' goal of securing a self-declared state and merging it with the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro.

Seselj was the first to accuse General Panic, who backs the peace plan, of corruption. His persistent repetition of the charges forced the government last week to form a state investigation commission. "By attacking Panic, Seselj is attacking Milosevic and [Yugoslav President Dobrica] Cosic," says Aleksandar Vasevic, a reporter for independent B-92 Radio who maintains contacts in the Army.

Mihailo Markovic, a senior member of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), agrees that Seselj's allegations about Panic could only have been made with inside information from the highest ranks of the Army.

"Seselj probably already had some officers in the Army, at least some contact with them, because it is strange how he has some information which almost nobody else has," Mr. Markovic says.

He says a "considerable majority of generals" opposes Milosevic's new policy on Bosnia. But he denies that Milosevic faces an imminent threat to his grip on power because most people in Serbia support his apparent desire to end the economic drain resulting from UN sanctions.