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Mladic Dismissal a Risky Power Play by Bosnian Serb Leader

Balkans: By ousting war crimes suspect, Plavsic enhances status with West. But perceived coup could anger army she's trying to bring under her control.

November 11, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VIENNA — The move by Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic to fire the powerful head of her army is the latest volley in a long-standing battle between civilians and soldiers in the Bosnian Serb leadership--a battle over position, profit and blame.

Plavsic watched Sunday as Maj. Gen. Pero Colic, a little-known former brigade commander, was sworn in to replace Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb army commander whose ruthless prosecution of war earned him hero status among Bosnian Serbs and two war crimes indictments from a world court.

Mladic, who witnesses say personally directed the notorious onslaught on the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica last year, was fired along with his senior deputies over the weekend. Now, nervous international mediators in Bosnia-Herzegovina are waiting for signs of whether Mladic will go along with the ouster.

The last time a civilian Bosnian Serb leader--fellow indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic--tried to dismiss Mladic, the general simply ignored the order and branded Karadzic a corrupt war profiteer. Mladic prevailed.

Things are different in Bosnia today: The war has been stopped by last year's Dayton, Ohio, peace accord, which sent much Bosnian Serb weaponry to warehouses. That, and the presence in Bosnia of more than 50,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led troops, makes mounting a military challenge to Plavsic difficult.

In addition, Plavsic, despite her history as an ardent proponent of the "ethnic cleansing" carried out by Mladic during the war, is not under indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. And she enjoys a legitimacy that Karadzic did not have following her victory in flawed, but certified, national elections in September.

All of this strengthens Plavsic's hand if her dismissal of Mladic is for real. And that is a big if. Many in Bosnia immediately suspected that the dismissal was a hollow gesture reminiscent of Karadzic's July resignation, brokered by U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke. Despite the fanfare that U.S. officials attached to Karadzic's departure, he continued to exercise substantial influence on Bosnian Serb politics.

Under the Dayton accord, war crimes suspects cannot hold office, and local authorities are obliged to turn them in to the tribunal at The Hague.

By firing Mladic, Plavsic removes a lightning rod for criticism and enhances her standing in the West by making it look as though she is complying with the West's demands. International mediators who were involved in negotiations to persuade her to take the step said they played on her natural desire for greater power. Far from moving Mladic closer to The Hague, however, sidelining him could in fact reduce the pressure for his arrest.

If Plavsic was acting without Mladic's tacit cooperation--and there are signs that this is the case--then she is taking some risks. Saying she was only bowing to international pressure, Plavsic announced the dismissal in the middle of the night over the weekend, and her aides immediately announced the transfer of the army's general command headquarters to Pale from Mladic's longtime redoubt of Han Pijesak.

What she stands to gain in this power play are a more compliant army less beholden to neighboring Serbia and to military officers she doesn't like, and international approval that would bring loans and economic aid.

The idea of replacing Mladic, along with 80 other senior officers, was first floated in October--reportedly on advice from Karadzic--and it drew an angry response from one of Mladic's closest aides.

Col. Milovan Milutinovic wrote a letter published in newspapers in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, that revived grievances the army leadership has repeatedly leveled against Karadzic and other civilian politicians based in Pale. Mladic and his faction are the products of a Communist system headquartered in Belgrade, while Karadzic, Plavsic and their cronies are anti-Communist right-wingers.

Milutinovic, echoing sentiments widely held in the Bosnian Serb military's old guard, accused the civilians of getting rich off the war and making political compromises that prolonged the fighting and cost the Serbs lives and land.

Plavsic may see this as a chance to diminish the influence that neighboring Serbia has continued to wield over the Bosnian Serb army, most officers of which still receive their paychecks from Belgrade.

Considerable animosity marks the relationship between Plavsic and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, whom Plavsic accuses of betraying the cause of Serbian nationalism. Milosevic-backed candidates were able to mount a credible opposition to Plavsic's party in the September elections, depriving it of several regional and national parliamentary seats.

Removing Mladic and his deputies weakens the link to Belgrade. That could backfire on Western goals, however, because Western mediators have often recruited Belgrade's help in forcing concessions from the Bosnian Serbs.

If Plavsic's gamble works, she will have an acquiescent army that will go along with the restructuring she plans. If it does not, she will have an angry army refusing to recognize a new leader produced in a barracks coup. Colic never rose above the rank of major during the war, triggering doubts as to whether he can command authority.

And that could spell trouble for the Dayton peace accord. For all his alleged atrocities, Mladic was viewed by NATO officers as a cooperative figure whose army generally obeyed the rules of Dayton.

And Plavsic, having claimed to be bowing to international pressure, now undoubtedly expects to be rewarded. What the West has promised her remains to be seen.

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