Reservists' row may test mettle of Yugoslav Army

Army cracks down on protests about reservists' involvement in Kosovo.

Protests by thousands of Army reservists unwilling to return to Kosovo are testing the Yugoslav Army's ability to mobilize effectively and impose discipline over a force made up largely of reservists, analysts in Belgrade say.

The demonstrations in the southern Serbian towns of Krusevac, Aleksandrovac, Cacak, and Prokuplje - the first of their kind since the start of NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia - have provoked a brutal reaction by local police forces, with hundreds of arrests reported yesterday alone.

The protests were started over a week ago by the mothers and wives of an estimated 4,000 Army reservists deployed in Kosovo. Despite early indications that the demonstrations would die down, they have grown in intensity - with Krusevac reportedly sealed off by the police on Tuesday, a day after the town's 2,000 reservists were ordered back to Kosovo under penalty of court-martial.

In Krusevac, Momcilo Stevanovic, an opposition party member, says: "The mothers of the soldiers that are still in Kosovo are preparing to go to Kosovo to bring their sons back. For this reason the police have closed off the town. Inside the town, they are breaking off groups of more than two or three people."

According to a source in Aleksandrovac who did not want to be named, what prompted the mothers to action was the belief that their sons' lives were being risked in vain. "The mothers are saying: Why should my son sit under the bombs?" she says.

The Yugoslav Army has had a history of desertion dating back to 1991, when thousands of reservists abandoned the front during the war in Croatia and, in one famous episode, actually walked back to Serbia from the front line in Vukovar.

This time, the soldiers were spurred to action by reports that their mothers had been mistreated while rallying for their return. According to one source reached in Krusevac, the Army recognized the potential for chaos in the town and did nothing to stop the soldiers from leaving, camouflaging the exodus as part of a regular troop demobilization. But last Saturday, the soldiers were ordered back to their barracks by Army commanders determined to impose discipline and set an example.

While agreeing that the demonstrations will continue to present a challenge to the Yugoslav Army over the short term, some analysts believe that the lack of a political network in Krusevac and the surrounding villages, as well as the brutality of the police crackdown, will ultimately stifle the insurgencies and allow the Army to gain the upper hand.

"The number of volunteers is bigger than this problem. The Army has no problem with conscripts or mobilization," says Dushan Mihajlovic, president of the New Democracy Party, who is familiar with areas of protest.

Still, one source in Krusevac notes, Army commanders are under significant pressure to ensure the return of the reservists to Kosovo before other Army units dispatched to the region start questioning the prolonged absence of their fellow conscripts. Army commanders "do not want the others to know. They said [the reservists from Krusevac and Aleksandrovac] had been demobilized, or they were on home leave," the source says.

Army units were not assigned to Kosovo until mid-1998 partly to prevent casualties among reservists - and forestall the protests that would inevitably follow from parents and relatives. Much of the fighting against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was done by the Military Police, under the command of Gen. Aleksander Dimitrijevic, a close aid of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Local police and antiterrorist units were also used.

It was only in April or May last year that the Yugoslav Third Army - which has a core of 7,000 soldiers but can reach a total of 25,000 when mobilized - became actively involved in Kosovo. The Army's summer offensive inflicted heavy losses on the KLA, which is fighting for the independence of Kosovo.

The Yugoslav Army evolved out of the notion of civilian defense promoted over the course of four decades by Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. As a consequence, it relies heavily on reservists. In 1990, the old Yugoslav Army, the JNA, had 140,000 soldiers on active duty but could mobilize a force of 450,000 reservists. Those numbers dropped considerably after the breakup of Yugoslavia, but the ratio between soldiers and reservists remained the same. Today, the federal Army of rump Yugoslavia - composed of Serbia and Montenegro - can rely on 90,000 regular troops and 260,000 reservists.

The incentives to join the Army have become scarcer since the rise to power of Mr. Milosevic and the subsequent strengthening of the police at the expense of the Army. "Milosevic changed the doctrine [of civilian defense] and brought in the police," a retired Army general said last month.

Milosevic's decision to rely on the police rested partly on the Army's reluctance to purge its ranks of non-Serbs as well as on Milosevic's need to create a security apparatus for himself. Another factor in Milosevic's decision was the determination by Army officers to oversee a professional institution bound to its supreme commander - Milosevic - on strictly apolitical premises.

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