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For Sale: Serbia's Slightly Used Military Might

by Vesna Peric Zimonjic

to MONITOR coverage of the Kosovo War

(IPS) BELGRADE -- "Three transport planes AN-26, eight transport helicopters MI-8, 200 tanks, and five submarines for sale" said the ads in Serbian media last week.

They were cheap as these things go. The Soviet-era AN-26 transport planes were priced between $25,000 and $50,000, the tanks about the same. The five subs were priced between $350,000 and $10 million.

"The sale of army supplies falls in line with the last phase of its reform, in accordance with the strategy of defense of Serbia and Montenegro," defense minister Prvoslav Davinic told journalists at a briefing. "It means that the army has to be smaller, more efficient and structurally fall in line with the demands of the NATO Partnership for Peace Program (PPP)."

Serbia and Montenegro, with a population of 7.5 million, and neighboring Bosnia with some four million, are the only countries in the region that are not members of the PPP.

The parliament of Serbia and Montenegro, two republics that have remained in a loose union that replaced former Yugoslavia, adopted a new national defense strategy at the end of last year. But the strategy faces a good deal of resistance from the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and some conservative parties.

"This is a sale of what used to be the mightiest army in the region," said Gordana Pop Lazic from the SRS. "This means that Serbia will remain defenseless in the years to come, and that is being done under the dictate of the West."

SRS, the strongest Serbian opposition party with about 30 percent popular support, participated actively in the wars in the 1990s that tore former Yugoslavia apart. It supported the ideology and strategies of the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

SRS leader Vojislav Seselj, like Milosevic, is being tried for war crimes before the United Nations-founded International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Those wars took the lives of more than 250,000 people, most of them non-Serbs.

The Serbian public remains deeply divided over the role the old regime played in those wars. That division is at the heart of new disputes over the military sales.

The new defense strategy calls for a cut in military strength from 77,000 to 50,000. Of the former Yugoslav republics, Croatia with a population of 4.4 million has halved its military strength from 21,000 to 10,000. The Bosnian army has also cut it numbers.

Romania, with a population of 23 million, reduced its military strength from 235,000 to 100,000 through the 1990s. Bulgaria reduced its army to a third of its communist-era size.

The Serbian military is following such trends. "But there is something else that the army of Serbia and Montenegro has to do before joining any international security organization," military analyst Aleksandar Radic told IPS. "It has to face the past in order to be successful in any reforms."

In the wars in the former Yugoslavia, what was then called the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) fought against the Western-backed pro-independence forces of Croatia and Bosnia. It played a role also in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo where more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians were briefly evicted from their homes. A number of Albanians and Serbs died in a guerrilla war that Milosevic described as "war against terrorism."

NATO retaliated with an 11-week bombing campaign against Serbia, mainly the city of Belgrade, that led to hundreds of civilian deaths and the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo. Next came the introduction of the United Nations administration of the region, which is now a center of crime, prostitution and drug- and people-trafficking run by the Albanian mafia. Warmer Serbian relations with the West and NATO were established after Milosevic was ousted from power in 2000.

"The army has to be relieved from the shameful burden of aggression," said retired general Blagoje Grahovac in a recent interview. "From being a threat in the region, it has to become an efficient cooperation tool with the rest of the world."

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Albion Monitor February 26, 2005 (

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