A Yugoslav Iraq-gate: how the Serbian eagle flew to help Saddam
by Gordana Knezevic
The ghost of the Milošević regime was resurrected in Serbia in late 2002, following the discovery of an illegal arms deal between the Balkan state and Iraq. The Belgrade government was quick to assign blame, naming several of the officials involved in order to avoid further investigation. The head of a trade company and an assistant defence minister were sacked in the process. But Serbian politicians and military industry personnel must have worked hard over the past decade to build up trust between Belgrade and Baghdad and keep the trade relationship alive.
The Eagle was not alone
The Yugoslav Iraq-gate started when NATO (SFOR) troops entered an aircraft factory in Republika Srpska - the Serb-controlled territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina - on 12 October 2002, and discovered that jet engines and spare parts for Russian-made MiG aircraft had been exported to Iraq through Jugoimport, a Yugoslav state-controlled firm. The company’s name is misleading, as it is mainly an exporter of arms.
Most of the blame for the deal with Iraq, however, was directed at the Orao [Eagle] factory, originally situated in the Sarajevo suburb of Rajlovac, but like many similar military facilities relocated deep into Serb-controlled territory during or soon after the Bosnian war (1992-95). The city of Bijeljina, in northeastern Bosnia, became the new address for Orao and all the trouble that came with it.
Whatever the background of this military cooperation between Iraq and Yugoslavia, it was not a small-town garage sale masterminded in Bijeljina. The Orao factory, it turns out, was not alone in the business. It worked with several Serbian companies throughout the process:namely, UTVA in Pančevo, Vazduhoplovni Zavod Moma Stanojlović from Batajnica, and Vazduhoplovno Tehnički Institut in Žarkovo close to Belgrade, according to a defence analyst interviewed by the International Crisis Group. In addition, at least two other weapons factories in Republika Srpska (RS) were involved in deals with Iraq.
A thousand-page report completed in the first week of January 2003 by local authorities in RS stated that the absence of civilian oversight over military facilities goes back to Biljana Plavšić’s term as President of the Serb entity in Bosnia (1997-98). The report attempts to create the impression that the government and the army weren't on the same page, and that the sole responsibility for lack of civilian oversight of the military lies in the hands of Biljana Plavšić. In the Greater Serbia project, however, there is little distinction between military leaders and politicians and their respective agendas. The turning of the Serbian military and political leaderships into a crime organization was a single process, and the Orao/Eagle affair merely uncovered one aspect of it. The process could be viewed either as militarization of the political superstructure, or as integration of the political superstructure into the military chain of command, depending on one's viewpoint and on future revelations of fact.
Workers at the Orao factory must have been very surprised by the fact that SFOR was interested in their facility. Given the sudden upsurge of interest in what they have been producing and for whom, they must now be wondering why nobody cared when the entire factory was relocated to Bijeljina.
Among other documents uncovered in the affair, SFOR obtained a copy of a letter dated 25 September 2002, with the Jugoimport logo printed on it, signed by a Yugoslav Army colonel and addressed to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence. The letter was an offer of assistance in dismantling and hiding unspecified equipment from UN weapons inspectors in Iraq and reassembling the equipment following their departure. The same letter indicated that current Iraqi weapons purchases from Serbia were being routed through Syria, and that a cargo intended for Iraq was in the Montenegrin port of Bar, awaiting a green light from Syria.
Brothers in Arms
The economic and military cooperation between Yugoslavia and Iraq started under Josip Broz Tito in the late 1970s, under the auspices of the Nonaligned Movement. Prior to the Gulf War, however, Iraq had never suffered UN sanctions, and had economic and military ties to many Western countries as well. During the Iraq-Iran war Saddam Hussein could obtain whatever weapons he wished, and at the time Yugoslav production may not have been the most attractive.
In most Arab countries, the regime change in Yugoslavia was not seen as reason enough for a change in policy. Milošević was viewed by most Arab leaders as a successor to Tito, and his nationalism was not recognized as a radical departure from Tito’s internationalism. Contrary to expectations, Arab governments did not provide substantial support to Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-1995 war. While most of the killing and ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims was achieved with the help of the Yugoslav Army, the army’s trade offices remained open in most Arab capitals.
Although a fair amount of humanitarian and military assistance to the Bosnian government came from non-governmental organizations and individuals in the Arab world, most Arab political leaders maintained ties with Belgrade. In Egypt, Islamic fundamentalists used the issue to bolster their own struggle against the regime, and in so doing further alienated the regime from the Bosnian Muslims’ cause. Libya, Iraq, and a few other Arab countries saw Milošević not as a butcher of Muslims but rather as a saviour of Yugoslavia. Somehow, perhaps because of their own problems with homegrown fundamentalism, they easily bought the Belgrade line about Bosnian Muslims being the troublemakers.
Belgrade thus initially preserved most of the diplomatic assets of Tito’s state, including friendships in the Arab world. Being a source of cheap oil and a potential market for Yugoslav goods, most Arab countries became a black market for Serbia under economic sanctions. While most Yugoslav diplomatic missions in Europe were closed or isolated during the Serbs’ campaign against Kosovo Albanians, Milošević obtained extra credit in the Arab world for defending sovereignty under NATO air raids in 1999. The fact that another major genocide of the Milošević era was just around the corner, this time against Kosovo Albanians, was overshadowed by anti-Western emotions in the Arab world.
So it was only natural that the Yugoslav embassy and the Yugoslav Army trade office in Baghdad were never closed. Bosnia and Kosovo were far away, and Yugoslav weapons were still needed by Arab armies, whose leaders could more easily identify with Milošević than with his victims. Once most avenues for weapons purchases were closed for Saddam, the Serbian arms-dealers saw their chance to sell outdated products as well as the swindling expertise they had acquired in their own dealings with the UN. Serbia provided assistance to Libya’s ballistic missile development programme and the firm Brunner was contracted by Jugoimport to develop an engine for the Iraqi cruise missile.
The alliance with Iraq was strongly supported by members of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), whose leaders frequently visited Baghdad while the cooperation was ongoing. Their founder Vojislav Š ešelj, well known for his role in the Bosnian war as a radical anti-Muslim campaigner, turned out to be the most outspoken supporter of Saddam Hussein.
Doing his best to downplay the affair with trade of illegal arms, FRY president Vojislav Koštunica told BBC radio that his country had been under sanctions for ten years, and pointed out that the economy had to function somehow. He said it would be mean and hypocritical for anyone to act surprised that Yugoslavia violated UN sanctions against Iraq by continuing old practices.
Faced with uncomfortable facts about arms deals with Iraq, Koštunica responded more like an Army spokesperson than like a head of state involved in illegal trade. According to him, the Orao contract involved no more than the servicing of old planes - far from selling state-of-the-art weapons. In the past, Jugoimport sold multiple rocket-launchers and other military technology to the Baghdad regime.
All the leading political parties in Belgrade, however, had members on the Jugoimport board of directors, and some retired Army generals are now owners of private trade companies turning arms sales into a lucrative family business. At least 30 other companies in Serbia are involved in the illegal arms trade.
Koštunica, for his part, has sought to present the illegal arms trade with Iraq and other rogue regimes as a mere survival skill needed by a weak Serbian economy, an economy exhausted by sanctions - without any reference to the cause of the sanctions. In reality, it is the survival of a criminal elite tied to the Yugoslav Army, an elite that resists change, resists the demands of the international court of justice, and resists any genuine democratic process in Serbia, that is at stake.
The same army that so skillfully dismantled entire factories and moved them from one location to another somehow didn’t manage to repair any of the damage caused by NATO raids in 1999. The ruins are preserved like monuments, to keep alive a moment of Serbs being victimized without any reference in collective memory to why international force was used, or to what was happening in Kosovo prior to NATO raids, and what kind of wars Serbia had fought in Bosnia and Croatia only a few years earlier.
Places like Srebrenica, where the Army slaughtered some eight thousand Muslims in the worst massacre Europe had seen since the Second World War, are erased from collective memory. Documents are being falsified to show that most of the victims died in battle. The image of Serbs as victims is widely cherished in Serbia, not merely as the result of irrational nationalist sentiments, but as a very rational way of preserving the special position of the Army, which is never questioned about past crimes or present deals.
In the early 1990s, it was always difficult to tell whether Milošević was the one running the Army, or whether the Army elite was manipulating Milošević, only to hand him over to the Hague tribunal once he became an obstacle to future plans. Being so soft spoken and apologetic in defending the illegal deals made by his Army, Koštunica, as a civilian authority, certainly never appeared to be daring enough to challenge the Army. The deadly weaponry is not only exported, but used likewise at home, and many unexplained suicides and assassinations have been recorded in Belgrade in the post-Milošević era. People disappear while jogging, or they shoot themselves on the Parliament steps. Is it possible that the ghosts of the Milošević era are still running the country?
Gordana Knežević was the wartime deputy editor of Oslobođenje, the only Sarajevo daily newspaper to publish throughout the war, and to survive in the postwar period. She now works for Reuters in Toronto. She wrote this article for Bosnia Report in January 2003