As Serbia's opposition prepares a massive demonstration in Belgrade on Aug. 19, and a general strike and civil disobedience campaign in September, a public battle is being waged in Serbia's media for the Army's loyalty.
The question of what the Army and police will do during a general strike is of prime importance to the country's opposition, who have learned hard lessons about military force.
The police were set loose against demonstrators in late 1996 and early 1997 during three months of demonstrations that shook Serbia to the core. The opposition movement was extinguished partly through the use of force.
Retired general and opposition leader Vuk Obradovic does not want the same thing to happen again. "This action will not be conducted as in 1996," he says.
If Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic decides to act against demonstrators, he could call either the Army or the police, or both. The police are believed to be more loyal to Mr. Milosevic and would likely be called first.
Opposition's pleas to military
At rallies across the country, opposition leaders are almost daily calling on the Army and police to not move against "the people."
"The Army, the police, and the people!" is a rallying cry for Vladan Batic, the coordinator of the Alliance for Change, a coalition of opposition parties that has held a dozen or so opposition rallies since the war ended.
But the Army's top commanders and ruling parties see things differently. Since mid-July, top-ranking officials from the Yugoslav Army have released a series of ominous statements whose main thrust is that the Army will prevent a violent overthrow of the regime.
"Our task is to preserve the stability of the country because there are many compromised souls, vassals of the West, who wish to change the government by force. But they will not have the support of the people," the Army's top commander, Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic, said recently.
"The Army will, in accordance with its constitutional obligation, without reserve protect all national institutions and their legally elected representatives," Lt. Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, commander of the Third Army, said recently.
Opposition leaders have reacted with sharp defiance to such provocations.
"General Ojdanic, it seems, has not read basic military regulations. The Army should be non-ideological, and its task is only to defend the country from external aggression, not to become involved in internal political debates," said Vuk Draskovic, leader of the country's largest opposition party, the Serbian Renewal Movement, at a press conference recently.
What may be widening the Army's role is how the Yugoslav Constitution is worded, according to retired General Obradovic. "It calls for the Army to protect the 'constitutional order' of the country, in addition to protecting its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. That objectively creates an opportunity to misuse the Army," says Obradovic.
Purge of top military leaders
Milosevic purged the Army last fall of leaders who showed a measure of independence and replaced them with die-hard loyalists.
The most important name on the list of purged Army leaders was Gen. Momcilo Perisic, who was replaced as the Army's top commander in November 1998, two weeks after issuing a prescient warning.
General Perisic said the country would suffer disastrous consequences if it went to war alone against the rest of the world. The speech was delivered when NATO first threatened to bomb Yugoslavia.
"Friends, we don't have allies in the world, and Serbia never went to war without allies," he said in a speech.
Perisic remained silent after his dismissal until just two weeks ago, when he gave an explosive interview to the Yugoslav weekly NIN. Perisic announced he might join opposition politics, and he severely criticized the country's leadership and Army commanders.
Perisic is scheduled to speak at the massive opposition rally scheduled in Belgrade for Aug. 19.
Reaction to the Perisic interview has been swift. "It only goes to show that he was removed with good reason. When he spits on Army leadership, he is spitting on himself," Ivica Dacic, spokesman for Milosevic's Socialist Party, said recently.
Less then a week after the Perisic interview, another high-ranking official turned his back on the Army. Lt. Dragan Vuksic published an open letter in an opposition paper asking for early retirement to protest the government's misuse of the Army.
The open criticism, along with continuing protests and hunger strikes by Army reservists, has buoyed the opposition's hopes that lower-ranking troops will not carry out orders to crush demonstrations, should they be issued.
"Anyone who tells you they know how this will play out is deceived. Nobody knows," says a Belgrade analyst who wished to be anonymous.
Obradovic, the retired general, says he is sure that the Army's rank and file will not turn against the people. "Small special units might be misused, but the Army as an institution will not turn against the people."
Obradovic notes that many demonstrators are hopeful that discontented Army officers will topple Milosevic. "The Army should not topple Milosevic. The democratic forces in Serbia will make that happen."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society