Milosevic eyes politics in army reshuffle

BELGRADE, Dec 30, 1999 -- (Reuters) Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has shored up loyalty in his devastated army with a slew of promotions which also make clear he is not prepared to allow Montenegro and Kosovo to slip quietly from his control.

The most senior figures singled out for promotion are prominent in a new campaign to try to show that the army still has a role to play in western-leaning Montenegro, which has threatened independence, and Kosovo, where NATO now rules.

Decrees issued on Tuesday evening by Milosevic, who is Supreme Commander, indicate that he may have weeded out possible dissent with an accompanying series of dismissals, although that is hard to judge because it was not specified who was sacked.

The dismissals could have merely formed part of reported plan of sharp cutbacks in the armed forces which the cash-strapped government can no longer afford to maintain.

The promotions and decorations appeared to be aimed at keeping happy officers whose barracks and equipment were smashed in NATO air strikes this year and who have now been hit by the funding shortfall, rather than paving the way for any offensive.

But the focus on Montenegro and Kosovo make clear Milosevic, who faces an economic crisis and an ongoing although so far ineffectual opposition campaign to oust him, also wants to keep these two hotspots high on the political agenda.

Earlier this month, NATO warned Milosevic not to interfere in Montenegro, the only republic left with Serbia in Yugoslavia, after the army saw off Montenegrin police in a tense standoff over control of its main civilian and military airport.

Montenegro, Kosovo Commanders Promoted

Milorad Obradovic, commander of the Second Army, which covers Montenegro, was given a higher rank in the same job in one of Milosevic's Tuesday decrees, carried by state news agency Tanjug and read on state television.

Military intelligence chief Geza Farkass also got a higher rank and Vladimir Lazarevic rose from commander of the army's Pristina Corps - based in Kosovo until NATO forced it from the province last June - to deputy head of the Third Army.

On Monday, Lazarevic and his new direct boss, Third Army commander Nebojsa Pavkovic, both said Serb forces could return to Kosovo in June when the NATO-led peacekeepers might be forced out by a veto on their continued deployment by China or Russia.

Shunned by the West, which has made clear it wants him out, Milosevic has turned to Russia and China for support in the hope of exploiting their differences with Washington and Brussels.

The two states, which have veto power on the U.N. Security Council, have criticized NATO's actions over Kosovo, but the issue of the peacekeepers' continued mandate is likely to be at most a bargaining chip in their wider dealings with the West.

NATO sources say there is no chance of Serb forces returning to the province after the widespread atrocities committed against the majority ethnic Albanian population and local analysts see the statements as political posturing.

They share an underlying concern that Milosevic may try to strike out against Kosovo or Montenegro if public anger grows and he finds himself completely cornered, but say if he does he is more likely to use police or paramilitaries than the army.

New Mobilization Difficult After Kosovo

It was well-trained police which played the main role in flushing out separatist Kosovo Albanian guerrillas during the year-long conflict which proceeded the air strikes, while the conscript army merely pounded villages from a distance.

Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the Belgrade newsletter VIP, said senior officers were themselves aware the army could not return to Kosovo and would have trouble mobilizing troops for a fight in Slav Montenegro, especially since the air strikes.

As to whether the military could threaten Milosevic, he said the top commanders were loyal to the president, who he said made sure they were well looked after, despite the army's humiliating withdrawal from Kosovo and parlous state.

"On the lower levels it's difficult to judge. There is a lot of dissatisfaction among the lower ranks but not yet to the extent that the army might turn against the regime."

The Tanjug report on the decree made clear Milosevic had not forgotten the lower ranks.

"More than 80 percent of the medals were for non-commissioned officers and junior officers," it said, citing Milosevic's military cabinet.

"Decorations are a sort of pay-off," said Grubacic.

"They give people the feeling that everything's comfortable in the army."

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