The JNA: a broken army

Author: Filip Švarm
Uploaded: Friday, 28 October, 2005

Article translated from Vreme (Belgrade) surveys the fate of the successor armies of the former Yugoslav People's Army

At the start of 2000, General-Colonel Momšilo Perišic, former chief of the general staff of the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ), offered the following explanation for the close ties between the VJ and the armies of Republika Srpska and Republika Srpska Krajina (VRS and SVK respectively): ‘... because it was a single army, with its members deployed throughout the area, and because the logistics supporting its machinery came mainly from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [now SCG].’

These three military formations were indeed created in 1992 out of the late Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). The SVK was the first to fall apart, under the impact of the Croatian Army’s Operation Storm [Oluja] in August1995. The VJ no longer exists either: following the signing of the Belgrade Agreement in 2003, it was renamed the Army of Serbia and Montenegro, although no one can say for sure that it will survive and for how long in this form either. Finally, the VRS too recently ceased to exist, abolished by the Republika Srpska assembly upon the insistence of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s international protectors. Its men and resources will be absorbed into the single army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. All of the JNA’s luckless children thus died before reaching maturity.

Rise

The VRS was formed in the spring of 1992 from the JNA units in Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose howitzers, transporters, tanks, mortars and other materiel were withdrawn to the area controlled by Radovan Karadžić’s Serb Democratic Party. Thirteen generals and high-ranking officers constituted its general staff in the underground military base of Han Pijesak. General Ratko Mladić was appointed commander, while General Manojlo Milovanović became chief of staff. According to Milovanović, ‘Mladić enjoyed an exceptional authority. He did not need to explain his ideas or seek support for them. The fact is that no one was allowed to question his orders, which is what set him apart from the rest of us.’

By the end of 1992 the VRS, solidly staffed and overwhelmingly superior militarily with respect to its opponents, was able to established Republika Srpska on seventy per cent of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territory. Together, of course, with ethnic cleansing, war crimes, arson, shelling civilians, looting, etc. Although the VRS did not differ organisationally from the JNA/VJ, it proved superior to it in many ways. To begin with, its high command did not need to say one thing and do another. By contrast with Serbia in relation to the wars of 1991, in RS in 1992 everyone knew what the war’s main aim was. Mladić and his staff, moreover, were for a long while immune from political infighting and from political control. The government of Radovan Karadžić, Biljana Plavšić, Momčilo Krajišnik and others depended on the army, unlike in Serbia where the opposite was true. And finally the VRS was brutally effective in capturing Bosnian towns and villages, which led to an unprecedented adulation of Mladić as war leader in Republika Srpska as well as in Serbia.

‘When I promise something, it is as if Lord Almighty had given his word’ was one of the VRS commander’s famous dicta addressed to representatives of the international community. At the height of his powers Mladić had complete control of his army. He permitted no parallel commands. Paramilitary formations which refused to integrate into the regular units were promptly dispatched from RS territory. There was not much that anyone could do without his knowledge and approval. And not only that. The whole of the VRS general staff prostrated themselves before the arrogant and blustering Mladić. Milošević received him warmly as a person whom he could trust, and on whom he could rely; and if they did not always agree, they at least understood each other. Neither Karadžić nor anyone else could claim such standing.

At the end of 1993, when the VRS was at the height of its power, signs of weakening started to emerge. The gap that had appeared when the Bosnian Serbs humiliated Milošević (hence also Mladić) by rejecting the Vance-Owen Plan, proposed in May of year, could not easily be mended. From then on Karadžić conducted an increasingly independent foreign policy, and political divisions appeared within the VRS too. This was most visible in the army revolt in Banja Luka, known as ‘September 1993', which Mladić found it hard to suppress. To make matters worse, the VRS turned to the defensive: its men were thinly spread over the huge territory between Trebinje and Bihać, while the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) grew in strength. They would henceforth choose the timing and location for attack. And finally the RS population’s growing impoverishment - accompanied by crime and war profiteering - did not contribute to the strengthening of fighting morale. It seemed as though the suffering and war depression would go on forever.

‘When General Mladić arrived under the influence of alcohol, to put it mildly, we had just completed redeployment after the loss of some positions’, says a VRS officer recalling events from the end of 1994. ‘He seized me roughly by the shoulder, pointed at the lost hilltop and told me that I would either regain it or die. Words failed me. Mladić looked at me sideways for a few minutes, then said ‘Never mind’ and offered me a drink.’

Fall

The true problem facing the VRS and the Pale leadership was their inability to end the war. After August 1994 - when the RS finally rejected the division of B-H in accordance with the Contact Group plan (49% to RS and 52% to the B-H Federation), and Belgrade pretended to impose sanctions on Pale - Mladić started to intervene more and more in politics. Though he deeply respected Milošević and could barely be civil to Karadžić, he also disagreed with the idea of withdrawing from the territory held by the Bosnian Serbs, which is why he sought a solution in the imposition of complete VRS domination. At a closed meeting with commanders from Majovica held at this time, he violently attacked the civilian government and demanded a monopoly on the distribution of petrol, and more generally military control of the economy and the business of the state. The representatives of the VRS would demand the same thing in the RS assembly, albeit in more measured tones.

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