It seemed that the prime minister had achieved success in his night dialogue with rebel officers. Information arriving early in the morning was reassuring, but completely wrong. Only a few hours later, the main road at the entrance to the capital of Serbia, Belgrade, was blocked by the military transport vehicles and special forces. Precisely that morning, 12 November 2001, it looked as we were witnessing a coup d’état and the removal of new, democratically elected government.
However, all the events, as if in a hall full of mirrors, were different from what we saw or expected. Including the mass cheering and applauding the rebel officers.
It was completely different than last Friday, 15 July 2016, in Turkey. In Belgrade, the cause of the revolt was known, while, in case of Turkey, we can only guess, with greater or lesser probability, on the motive and cause; in Belgrade, military coup could have succeed, but rebels had not hoped or wished that, and in Turkey, it was broken relatively quickly; in Belgrade, there were no sanctions against the rebels, they were even awarded; in Turkey, the government has been conducting a full and systematic purge of officers, policemen, civil servants, judges and prosecutors. Both attempts, military revolt in first, and coup in the second case, are related by at least one thing – rejection of political reconciliation and agreement.
The main objection to the then Serbian prime minister was his cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia and, as the rebel officers and their political supporters had stated threateningly, that this turned those who had participated in these wars in a hunting game at which everyone could shoot. A key objection to Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, should probably not be sought in the area of violations of human rights and freedom of the media, for which I believe that the military is not the most sensitive about, but elsewhere. In his more peaceable new policy of regulating relations with neighbouring countries, first Israel, then Russia, and finally Iran.
The motives of military revolt in Serbia were much more visible. Đinđić knew that, as he mentioned himself, the necessary reforms in the country had always represented swimming upstream, that they were, on first place, a conflict with the mentality, and then with the interests and inertia. That is how he understood both groups of negotiating requirements that had to be met for membership in the European Union.
First, consistent cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as an affirmation and recognition of the international legal order, conventions and rules. He understood the second group of requirements, which included the necessary processes of building of state institutions, rule of law and respect for human rights, as an obligation of introduction of the necessary development reforms and democracy. This is the only way to understand the dilemma he spoke about that year.
That the basic question was whether to look for the future of Serbia in the past or in the future, and that there were two completely different concepts which established Serbian political reality within this relatively simple question. However, essentially, it was a dispute between legalists and reformists, former president of the state, Dr Vojislav Koštunica and the president of the government, Dr Zoran Đinđić. A dispute that fully escalated precisely in the matter of cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. After the extradition of former president, Slobodan Milošević, new demands continued to arrive in Belgrade, in fact, new orders for the imprisonment of a series of suspected individuals. And each time, this launched a strong reformist and legalist dispute on what had to be done. That is why Đinđić’s government made a decision in one moment, in fact, they needed time, that they would choose some less publicly known names from a series of demands from the Hague for the arrests. Completely unknown brothers Predrag and Nenad Banović were arrested and quickly handed over to the Hague Tribunal, which had issued an arrest warrant for them. The actors of the arrests, and this is an essential part, were the members of the special operations unit of the Serbian state security. The policemen would say – as per the protocol, needed assistance. This special operations unit of the state security, whose members were completely outside the existing legal order, in a way untouchable, had its base in the Vojvodina town Kula, almost an hour’s drive from Belgrade. Several of those members who assisted in the arrest of brothers Banović returned there. And this is where it started. They found out that it was not a routine operation, because the arrested brothers were allegedly members of a special paramilitary unit, called Vukovi sa Vučjaka (Wolves from Vučjak), which took part in the military looting in Bosnia together with special forces from Kula. They realized that this was a violation of a tacit agreement supposedly reached by the then opposition leader Đinđić and their former boss Milorad Ulemek Legija, just ahead of the democratic revolution of September 2000. Members of that special forces unit, called Red Berets, were probably the special protection of Slobodan Milošević. Therefore, a possible agreement for them to react, to support the opposition in the change of government, was even more significant. Essentially, they were just the spectators of takeover of power, including the arrest of Milošević. Of course, such an arrangement is always followed with a part – what do I get. In the aforementioned case, it was allegedly some sort of promise of special state protection from judicial authorities, as well as from the Hague Tribunal.
As a response to not only a violation of a possible agreement, but also a real fear, that tomorrow their order for the arrest could come, they blocked part of the highway to the Hungarian border with military vehicles firstly. The prime minister was on an official visit to United States, where he led the negotiations on writing off the state debts, and the minister of the interior mentioned very carefully for the first time the eventual political background of the military protest, but without any real response. Immediately after returning to the country, Đinđić went to Kula. The whole conversation was secretly recorded, for specific purposes. Confirming its power. They felt victorious. Very early in the morning, I received a notice that the visit was successfully brought to an end. I sent the security workers from the residence to the bakery for first bread and wrote a report.
I knew that feeling from the time of the Slovenian war of independence, which I spent as a programme manager in the office on the fourth floor of the national television. One afternoon, during the war, I went home for a good lunch before which I fell asleep. I remember the voice of me father who tried to wake me up. That I had to immediately go back to work and that a security guard was waiting for me. That was the memory. When you feel that you fell asleep, but they wake you up. The announcement stated that a line of military armoured vehicles was arriving to Belgrade from Kula, only this time I returned to my Belgrade office. Red Berets decided to send another message and block the entrance to Belgrade.
Red Berets had neither knowledge nor experience to take power. Turkish coup soldiers undoubtedly had that experience. Đinđić did not take any measures, because he could not have done it, due to the connection of the coup unit with the opposition parties, the military secret service, and indirectly with the president of the country. At the same time, he even had some agreements with them as well. On behalf of the withdrawal, he gave them another concession. Appointment of new deputy head of the civilian secret service, who was a direct connection between authorized special units and organized underworld. They completely protected themselves and actually gained the status of untouchables.
One year later, when Đinđić decided that he had to raise the question that Europe and America had persistently rejected, the status of Kosovo, they decided to kill him. Special units of the Serbian state security service were disbanded only after his assassination in March 2003.
Erdogan decided to carry out organized and mass political purge, since his new policy of appeasement of relations with neighbours meant war with the Islamic State and, consequently, terrorist attacks in Turkey, which followed afterwards.
This is why it is difficult to determine the limits of response to coup plotters. Was Đinđić too soft and died because of that, causing the reform backwardness of Serbia?
Or is today’s Erdogan’s purge insufficiently human?