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date: 23 October 2020

Serbia’s Civil-Military Relations

Abstract and Keywords

When, how, why, and to what effect did the military involve itself in Serbia’s politics? Due to its decisive role in national liberation and state-building, the Serbian military has always enjoyed high societal reputation. Since the 19th century, the military also played an important role of a nation-builder and social elevator for the lower strata of society. However, Serbia also has a very long tradition of military involvement in politics with several coups that decisively shaped the course of national history. Since the outset of Serbia’s state-building in the first half of the 19th century, Serbia experienced four successful military coups and many occasions when its armed forces were used to quash domestic unrest. The reasons behind the robust involvement of armed forces in Serbian (and Yugoslav politics) have been diverse and ranged from an ambition to provide internal stability and defend national or corporate interests to a desire to change the country’s foreign policy orientation. Since the end of the Cold War, the military played an ambiguous role on some occasions undermining democracy, while on others being an agent of democratic transformation. Since 2006, the military of Serbia has been placed under civilian democratic control and seems to have internalized its role of a politically neutral and professional force with a mission to defend the country, support civilian authorities in the event of emergency, and contribute to international peace and security. Still, the ongoing democratic backsliding, the lack of clarity about the state’s strategic outlook, and the still unresolved status of Serbia’s former province Kosovo all preserve the potential for civil-military tensions in the future.

Keywords: Serbia, Yugoslavia, civil-military relations, armed forces, military in politics, democracy


When, how, why, and to what effect did the military involve itself in Serbia’s politics? Serbia has a very long tradition of military involvement in politics with several coups that decisively shaped the course of national history. In order to capture the continuity of this trend, Serbia’s civil-military relations since the 19th century will be discussed, although the brunt of the analysis will concern post–1945 politics. Civil-military relations in the process of national liberation and state-building during “the long” 19th century (1804–1918) will be outlined. The role of civil-military relations in the rise and fall of Yugoslavia in “the short” 20th century (1918–2000) will be analyzed. Finally, the article will focus on the evolution of civil-military relations in Serbia since the process of democratization started in 2000.

Civil-Military Relations in the 19th Century

The role of the military in the process of Serbian state-building can hardly be exaggerated. Serbia’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire started with two uprisings in 1804 and 1815. The first Serbian armed force was created under Karađorđe Petrović, the leader of the first uprising. The Serbs were allowed to keep a standing army under Miloš Obrenović, the leader of the second uprising. One of the first involvements of the military in Serbia’s politics took place in 1842 when Toma Vučić Perišić, who was one the leaders in both uprisings, took control over the embryonic Serbian military, ousted Mihailo Obrenović, Miloš’s son, and enthroned Aleksandar Karađorđević, Karađorđe’s son (Marković, 2014, p. 75). In 1860, however, Mihailo returned to power with an ambition to liberate the country from Ottoman rule. He soon institutionalized the Serbian military and in addition to a professional standing army, he also introduced the national army, composed largely of peasants. Upon his assassination in 1868, to prevent the National Assembly from installing a new ruler, Mihailo’s war minister Milivoje Petrović Blaznavac staged the first military coup in Serbian history, bringing to power Mihailo’s cousin Milan Obrenović (Marković, 2014, p. 76). As he was still a minor, a regency composed of three influential political leaders, including Blaznavac, was established. When Milan came of full age, he declared Blaznavac to be the first Serbian general, Minister of Defence, and the Prime Minister of the Serbian government (Marković, 2014, p. 84).

After yet another war with the Ottoman Empire, Serbia was granted independence at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. In the following years, Serbia, which acquired the status of a kingdom in 1881, invested heavily in the development of its military. The 1883 law on the organization of the military foresaw the dissolution of the national army, a force feared by the King Milan. This sparked a rebellion in Eastern Serbia, also known as the Timok Rebellion, which was brutally quashed with the standing army under the firm control of the King (Ćorović, 1997, p. 549). In the years to come, the role of the military was of quintessential importance in the irredentist aspirations of Serbia toward the neighboring Habsburg and Ottoman Empires where most Serbs lived. By the turn of the century, the officer corps was established as a stratum in the budding Serbian middle class along with the bureaucrats, intelligence, and merchants. As such, it was a rare social elevator which allowed vertical mobility in what was still predominantly a country of peasants. Moreover, the military became a heavily funded “people’s dependence” of crucial importance in the process of national liberation and unification and hence an important factor in domestic politics as well (Marković, 2014, p. 83).

After a humiliating defeat in the war with Bulgaria in 1885–1886, the King Milan abdicated in favor of his son Alexander I Obrenović in 1889. As Alexander was still a minor, a regency was established, with two out of its three members being generals. In 1893, with the help of the military, the 16-year-old Alexander staged a coup d’état, declaring himself of full age and therefore the new Serbian King. His father Milan returned to politics in 1897 and served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Serbian military until 1900. During this time, the Serbian military was turned into “a state within a state,” fully protected from any civilian scrutiny as the government was not even discussing its budget (Marković, 2014, p. 84).

In addition to being an erratic and absolutist ruler, Alexander made himself incredibly unpopular by marrying Draga Mašin, his mother’s lady-in-waiting, who was not only 10 years older than him but also infertile. As a sign of disapproval of his son’s marriage, Milan resigned from his post and left the country. One of the first moves of Alexander was to cleanse the military from his father’s supporters, which infuriated the officer corps (Kazimirović, 2016, p. 53). The military was also increasingly dissatisfied with the reduced funding and nepotism which secured the Queen’s brothers’ massive influence in the military well beyond their rank (Antić, 2007, p. 179; Clark, 2012, p. 10). The military’s discontent culminated in May 1903 when a group of conspirators led by a lieutenant of the Serbian army, Dragutin Dimitrijević Apis, assassinated King Alexander and his wife Queen Draga. Moreover, they enthroned Peter I from the rival Karađorđević dynasty as the new king of Serbia, who in turn guaranteed the conspirators immunity and privilege (Kazimirović, 2016, pp. 71–72).

After the May coup, Serbia somewhat democratized, but the political role of the military conspirators strengthened. In 1911, they established an organization “Union or Death!” - also known as the “Black Hand” - with Apis as one of its principal architects and unification of all Serbs in one state as their chief goal. Over the years, the Black Hand published several newspapers and managed to build an extensive network of loyal informants and collaborators both inside and outside Serbia. The Black Hand gained further influence following the two Balkan Wars (1912–1913) which allowed Serbia to double its territory. Throughout this period, which was characterized by the strong political weight of the Black Hand, a counter-conspirator movement simmered within the military. This informal network, also known as the White Hand, allied with the Prince Regent and later King Alexandar Karađorđević (Kazimirović, 2016 p. 327).

Despite these counter-conspirator efforts, the Black Hand managed to thwart the government’s plan to introduce civilian authority in the newly obtained territory in the south (today’s North Macedonia and Kosovo) on the pretext of the need to fight insurgents. Instead, the government declared a permanent state of emergency in the new territories, allowing the Serbian military to enjoy a free hand there (Stojanović, 2010, pp. 269–270). The military also shaped Serbian policy toward an Ottoman province, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been first occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878 and then annexed 30 years later. In 1913, Apis was promoted to the head of the Serbian military intelligence, thus gaining control over an extensive irredentist network of Serbian nationalists inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was through this network that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, was planned, financed, and executed on June 28, 1914. The involvement of the Serbian military in politics hence contributed to the outbreak of the World War One (Clark, 2012, pp. 47–56). In 1917, considered to be too dangerous a rival for both the King and the Serbian government, Apis and his associates were sentenced to death in a staged trial during the so-called Thessaloniki Process. This put an end to the influence of the Black Hand, although the military remained an important factor in Serbian politics (Mitrović, 2004, pp. 260–267).

In sum, throughout the long 19th century, Serbia’s civil military relations were characterized by the central role of the armed forces in national liberation and state-building. The military was also an important social elevator and a mechanism of nation-building. However, the military also wielded huge political power domestically, taking control of domestic and foreign policy on several occasions.

Civil-Military Military Relations in the 20th Century

Serbia’s military victories during the Great War paved the way for the unification of all Serbs in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes established in December 1918. It was a centralized state with armed forces modelled after the military of the Kingdom of Serbia. In order to calm down rising interethnic tensions between Serbs who were politically dominant and Croats who demanded more balanced power-sharing, King Alexander introduced personal dictatorship and renamed the state the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in January 1929. In so doing he relied on the help of military officers associated with the White Hand, whose leader General Petar Živković became the Yugoslav Prime Minister.

After the 1934 assassination of King Alexander in Marseille, the state started reconsidering both its domestic and foreign policies.1 In 1939, the establishment of an autonomous province, Banovina Hrvatska, temporarily soothed the Croatian question which had plagued Yugoslav politics throughout the interwar period. Later that year, Yugoslavia declared neutrality when Hitler’s forces invaded Poland. Yugoslav military officers were unhappy with such a course of events, and the final straw that turned their discontent into an open rebellion was the accession of Yugoslavia to the Tripartite Pact on March 25, 1941. Two days later, the Yugoslav military, led by Brigadier General Borislav Mirković, staged a military coup, enthroned the 17-year-old Peter II Karađorđević, and installed a unity government led by General Dušan Simović, the former Chief of the General Staff of the Royal Yugoslav Army. Soon after that, massive demonstrations erupted in Belgrade in support of the coup and against the alliance with Hitler. As a result of this U-turn, on April 6, 1941 the Third Reich invaded Yugoslavia, whose military capitulated only 11 days later. The country was divided among German, Hungarian, Italian, and Bulgarian troops while its two liberation movements—royalist Chetniks and communist Partisans—plunged into a vicious civil war.

In 1945, thanks to their military victory at home and the broader geopolitical fallout of World War II, the Partisans established the so-called second Yugoslavia.2 Although the Soviet Troops helped the liberation efforts, in contrast to the rest of Eastern Europe Yugoslavia did not have a Soviet military occupation after the war. The main pillars of the new country were the charismatic partisan leader Josip Broz Tito, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (Savez Komunista Jugoslavije—SKJ), and the Yugoslav People’s Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija—JNA).3 As Yugoslavia left the Soviet camp in 1948, the increased prospect of an external invasion propelled significant investment in the strengthening of JNA, which further increased its social standing and political influence. In addition to its role to defend the country from an external aggression, one of the primary missions of JNA, recognized by 1953, 1963, and 1974 constitutions, was to defend the constitutional order, thus opening space for its involvement in domestic politics (Rokvić, Jeftić, & Ivaniš, 2013, p. 683). As the guardian of the state and its socialist federative character, JNA drew its legitimacy from its mythologized war victory against both the Nazis and their domestic quislings.

JNA was at once fused with the state and separated from it. On the one hand, the figure of Tito was the leader of the party, the head of state, and the supreme commander of armed forces with a rank of marshal, the only Yugoslav officer ever to hold it. JNA provided an unconditional support to SKJ, its interpretation of Marxism, and Yugoslavia’s unique path among the socialist countries, characterized by the doctrines of “brotherhood and unity” and “self-management” at home and “non-alignment” abroad (Tatalović, 1997, 65). On the other hand, JNA was, in many respects, “a state within a state.” With its educational institutions, agricultural production, and the sizeable military-industrial complex, JNA was in many respects a self-sufficient institution with strong esprit de corps, whose officers shared a sense of mission to preserve the country from its internal and external enemies (Hadžić, 2000, pp. 513–514).

The defense doctrine of the second Yugoslavia was the Total National Defense (Opšte narodna odbrana—ONO).4 Drawing on the partisan experience from World War II, the doctrine foresaw the concerted efforts of JNA and territorial forces conducting guerrilla resistance behind the enemy lines. In contrast to the Soviet Union, this implied a higher degree of decentralization and autonomy of Territorial Defense (Teritorijalna odbrana—TO), organized at the level of republics. While the Federal Secretariat for National Defense controlled JNA, its republican counterparts were responsible for TO (Gow, 2002, p. 198).

During the first two decades, JNA was mostly concerned with external threats and was not directly involved in politics (Gow, 2002, p. 198). This started to change in 1966 when the Minister of Interior, the head of civilian intelligence Aleksandar Ranković, and the strongest advocate of a unitarist Yugoslavia, was ousted from office on the pretext that he had been allegedly spying on Tito. This was made possible with the help of the Yugoslav military counterintelligence. The involvement of JNA in politics continued to grow in 1971 when the Croatian nationalist movement organized public demonstrations, including a students’ strike demanding more economic, political, and cultural autonomy. These events fueled interethnic antagonism and challenged the Yugoslav sense of unity and solidarity. While the reaction of the branch of SKJ in the Republic of Croatia was considered to be too meek, high military officers demanded a more decisive response, and there were even rumors of a potential putsch (Dean, 1976, p. 29). Tito then intervened and suppressed the protests while replacing Croatian officials considered to be too tolerant toward the growing nationalist tendencies.

This had a profound ramification for civil-military relations in Yugoslavia. From then on, JNA was co-opted into the domestic political process and gained an unprecedented role in Yugoslav politics. The events in Croatia also strengthened concerns that the decentralized defense could weaken JNA. As a result, the doctrine of Total National Defense was reconsidered by keeping the Territorial Defense but tilting the balance back to JNA (Dean, 1976, p. 26). Moreover, JNA became much more cognizant of the relevance of internal stability and domestic consolidation for its ability to defend the country from external aggression. In the following period, JNA also increased its representation in various party organs to a degree which was comparable to autonomous provinces (Dean, 1976, p. 49).

Despite its strengthened role in politics and thanks to Tito’s undisputed authority, JNA never openly challenged SKJ. However, preparations for a political succession of the aging leader were already underway. Constitutional amendments adopted in 1971 placed the control of JNA into the hands of a collective presidency, while the command lay with the Federal Secretary for National Defense.5 Tito’s death in 1980 removed a symbolic pivot of Yugoslavia and foregrounded JNA as one of the two remaining pillars of Yugoslavia. The additional onus on the military was the fact that it was the only “all Yugoslav” institution in the country given the strengthening of the republican branches of SKJ after 1974 (Dean, 1976, p. 22).

From Tito’s death onward, JNA was put front and center of the struggle to preserve Yugoslavia. JNA therefore became, in the words of Miroslav Hadžić, “a relatively independent political subject with considerable power” (Hadžić, 2000, p. 510). JNA reacted harshly to all criticisms of its political role by demonizing them as being anti-military and anti-state. This increasingly assertive political role of JNA was seen by many in Croatia and Slovenia as an instrument of a Serbian hegemonic impulse toward centralism. Disproportionate representation of different ethnic groups among the officer corps only amplified this impression. Serbs and Montenegrins were hugely overrepresented despite the ethnic key principle in place for hiring and promotion in JNA.6

In the second half of the 1980s, the country was facing both an economic downturn and revival of nationalism across its six republics and two autonomous provinces. As the loose federation weakened under these centrifugal tendencies, JNA tried to play its unifying role, and its officers complained about the inability of civilian leaders to cope with the crisis. The military also opposed the calls for political pluralism, as this would dissolve the party organs in the military, remove its ideological role, and therefore erode a good part of its legitimacy (Hadžić, 2000, p. 520). It was during this time that the Total National Defense doctrine came under fierce criticism from within JNA, as it was becoming increasingly clear that the Territorial Defense could become the basis for future national armies (Hadžić, 2000, p. 524). According to a 1988 declassified analysis conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Yugoslavia exhibited several important indicators which made a military coup plausible: growing ethnic tensions, the government’s inability to resolve economic problems, and the military’s self-perception as the guardian of the state (CIA, 1988).

The end of the Cold War only accelerated the deep dive toward the implosion of Yugoslavia, while the leadership in Croatia and Slovenia advocated for the confederalization of Yugoslavia hence opening the way for its peaceful and gradual dissolution. In contrast to that, communists from Serbia and Montenegro favored either strong federation or disintegration along ethnic lines, allowing Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to remain in the rump Yugoslavia. While the Yugoslav military was the last bastion of the federal state, its corporate interests, ideology, and predominantly Serbian composition inclined it to side with the Serbian position (Bebler, 1997, p. 68). Although SKJ disintegrated in January 1990 when its Slovenian and Croatian delegates left what went down in history as its last convention, the party continued to function for a little while inside JNA. Then in November, the party branch of JNA transformed into an independent political party—League of Communist—Movement for Yugoslavia—with JNA’s top brass as its first members.7

JNA tried to stop the implosion of the federal state, although its actions only further sped up the course of events. Following the first parliamentary elections in Croatia which brought nationalists to power, the Croatian Serbs declared their autonomous region (SAO Krajina). In January 1991, the military counterintelligence unit of JNA (Kontraobaveštajna služba—KOS) provided the Serbian media with a secretly made tape featuring the Croatian Minister of Defense Martin Špegelj and his associates detailing the ongoing armament of Croatian separatist paramilitary forces. The growing dysfunctionality of federal authorities, such as the rotating Presidency and the SKJ, placed JNA at the center of this political maelstrom (Hadžić, 2000, p. 517).

JNA, however, proved incapable of preventing the disintegration of Yugoslavia. As Slobodan Milošević rose to power in Serbia he was also increasingly politically instrumentalising JNA. As the President of the Serbian SKJ, he first put under his control the Serbian autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina, but also the Republic of Montenegro, hence strengthening his grip within the federal Presidency (Vladisavljević, 2008). On March 9, 1991, massive protests erupted against Milošević, now the President of Serbia. In response, the federal authorities took JNA to the streets of Belgrade. Only a week later, JNA, again backed by the Milošević allies in the Presidency, tried to push through a state of emergency which meant to end the boiling political crisis. The plan fell through as the approval lacked one vote. Milošević later said that this lack of determination by JNA to intervene and salvage Yugoslavia ruined the reputation of its military (Vlajković, 2004b, p. 125).

From then on, JNA dissociated itself from the goal of preventing the disintegration of Yugoslavia and submitted to Slobodan Milošević and his interpretation of Serbian national interests. After Croatia and Slovenia declared independence on June 24, 1991, a short war erupted in Slovenia. After 10 days, JNA withdrew its forces to the territories inhabited by the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (Hadžić, 2000, p. 527). In 1992, the country disintegrated along its administrative borders into Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (Savezna Republika Jugoslavija—SRJ) composed of Serbia and Montenegro. JNA broke apart and practically gave birth to three new armies. The first two were the Serbian armies in Bosnia and Herzegovina—the Army of the Republic of Srpska, and in Croatia—the Army of the Republic of Serb Krajina. The third one was the Yugoslav Military (Vojska Jugoslavije—VJ), which was JNA’s direct successor and which provided military and logistical support to the former two. While these three militaries were formally divided, in fact “they were part of a troika,” sharing a “common cause and common esprit de corps,” as James Gow put it (Gow, 2002, pp. 207–208).

Throughout the 1990s, civil-military relations in the rump Yugoslavia stood in stark contrast with the rest of post-communist Europe. Due to successive armed conflicts and the continued absence of true democratization, Yugoslav civil-military relations in this period were characterized by the absence of democratic control and governance. VJ was formally under the political control of the Supreme Defense Council, composed of the Presidents of Yugoslavia and its two republics (Serbia and Montenegro). Effectively, however, it was under the control of Slobodan Milošević, regardless of the function that he was occupying first as the President of Serbia (1990–1997) and then as the President of SRJ (1997–2000) (Gow, 2002, p. 203). However, throughout the 1990s, he never trusted the officer corps fully and therefore relied on police forces which he strengthened, militarized, and used as his praetorian guard (Gow, 2002, p. 209).

Although VJ officially stayed clear from the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, it indirectly supported the war efforts of the Serbs and their militaries there. In the wake of the Kosovo war (1998–1999), Milošević managed for the first time to put VJ entirely under his control and used it in conjunction with the Serbian police in a campaign against the Kosovo Liberation Army. During the war, Milošević controlled VJ through loyal generals, often bypassing the Supreme Defense Council (Vlajković, 2004a). The ensuing humanitarian crisis in Kosovo provoked NATO intervention, leading to the Kumanovo Treaty, UNSC Resolution 1244, and the withdrawal from the province of the Yugoslav and Serbian forces in June 1999. After the Kosovo war, Milošević continued to misuse VJ to strengthen his regime, repress the political opposition, persecute whistleblowers, undermine independent media, and meddle with election results (Vlajković, 2004b, pp. 39, 65).

During the “short” 20th century (1918–2000), Serbia was part of the Yugoslav project whose disintegration started in Kosovo in 1989 and ended with the Kosovo war exactly a decade later. Throughout this period, the military continued to play an important role in domestic politics, including one successful coup in 1941. The role of the military in domestic politics continued after World War II, especially after 1971 when JNA increasingly became a political arbiter in the weakening federation as well as an instrument for quashing domestic dissent. This tragically culminated in the Yugoslav wars (1991–1995) when JNA was instrumentalized by the Serbian regime.

Civil-Military Relations in the 21st Century

In September 2000, Slobodan Milošević lost presidential elections to Vojislav Koštunica who was the candidate of the united Serbian opposition (Demokratska opozicija Srbije—DOS). After refusing to step down, massive demonstrations broke out across Serbia. Although the military top brass had warned Milošević that a critical mass of protestors was expected to challenge his regime, he preferred to listen to a less dramatic assessment provided by the police, which proved to be wrong (Vlajković, 2004b, p. 73). The protests culminated on October 5, when hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets of Belgrade, storming the National Assembly, downtown police stations, and Radio Television of Serbia. Milošević issued orders to VJ and the Special Operations Unit (Jedinica za specijalne operacije—JSO) to quash the protest but they all disobeyed (Vlajković, 2004b, pp. 75–81).8 A day later, Slobodan Milošević accepted his defeat, ushering in the process of democratization. The peaceful regime change was possible thanks to the pacts that had previously been made between the members of DOS and the upper echelons of the security sector (Ejdus, 2016). While Zoran Đinđić, Serbia’s future Prime Minister, held contacts with the commander of JSO, the new President Vojislav Koštunica struck informal deals with the military top brass.9 Moreover, the growing political disagreements between Prime Minister Đinđić, who controlled the Government, police, and JSO and the federal President Vojislav Koštunica, who controlled the army, further heated tensions in civil-military relations. This conflict threatened to explode when Koštunica allegedly found bugging devices planted in his office and then ordered the military to storm Serbia’s Government Communication Bureau in June 2001. The Chief of Staff Nebojša Pavković, who revealed this to the public, refused to implement this decision, while Koštunica denied that such an order ever existed.10

As a result of these pacts with security sector officials and disagreements among the new political elites, the Milošević-era cronies such as Chief of Staff Nebojša Pavković, the head of the notorious Secret Service (Resor državne bezbednosti—RDB) Radomir Marković, and JSO Commander Milorad Luković all remained in office after the regime change. Moreover, this led to the creation of reserved domains in the security sector over which democratically elected officials had little if any control. After the regime change, the military leadership headed by general Pavković convinced the new President Koštunica that he should refrain from reforms if he wanted to preserve stability, and in return backed him up in his growing rivalry with the reform-minded government led by Đinđić (Vlajković, 2004b, pp. 81–97, 115–125). Furthermore, the military also provided shelter to war crimes fugitives such as General Ratko Mladić (Gow & Zveržhanovski, 2013, pp. 151–176). JSO, on the other hand, operated independently from the government and in close coordination with the Zemun Clan, infamous for assassinations, car thefts, kidnappings, and drug trafficking. While the Government of Serbia did not wield control over the military, formally under the command of federal President Koštunica, it still relied on JSO. This force was used, for instance, during the arrest and extradition of Slobodan Milošević to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in June 2001.

When JSO started to worry that its members could also be arrested and extradited to the ICTY, they organized a mutiny by blocking the highway in Belgrade from November 9–17, 2001. On that occasion, the fully armed JSO, a force second in strength only to the Yugoslav military, blocked the highway in Belgrade. President Koštunica openly endorsed the mutiny of JSO as a legitimate strike and even stated that doctors also strike in their uniforms, pretending that it was business as usual. His close associate Aco Tomić even promised to JSO commanders that military police special forces “The Cobras” would not intervene.11 Pushed against the wall, Prime Minister Đindić had no other choice but to fulfill most of JSO’s demands. This included the removal from office of RDB’s Director Goran Petrović and his deputy Zoran Mijatović and their replacement with people proposed by JSO and the Zemun Clan. In March 2003, the two organizations plotted together and assassinated Prime Minister Đinđić. Thanks to the swift introduction of a state of emergency and a massive police action code-named “The Sabre,” the culprits were identified and arrested and JSO disbanded. However, while all the evidence suggested that the conspirators had a plan for a coup d’état and maintained contacts with various political actors, the political background of the assassination has never been investigated.12 Soon after Vojislav Koštunica became the next Prime Minister in March 2004, the Special War Crimes Prosecutor dropped charges against Aco Tomić for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Đinđić. This probably happened under political pressure as no proper justification for this was given despite strong evidence of his involvement.13

Despite some modest reforms which had occurred during the first several years after the regime change in 2000, the legacy of the Milošević regime coupled with the unresolved status of the rump Yugoslavia, hampered reforms in civil-military relations (Edmunds, 2005). Following 2003, the conditions were met for the outset of the first generation of reforms, aimed at the establishment of the constitutional and institutional framework for democratic civilian control of the armed forces (Cottey, Edmunds, & Forster, 2002).14 In February 2003, FRY transformed into a looser State Union of Serbia and Montenegro (Državna zajednica Srbija i Crna Gora—SCG). Its Charter for the first time in Yugoslav and Serbian history explicitly stated that the military was under democratic and civilian control. In 2004, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of SCG was placed under the control of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

In 2006, SCG dissolved after the Montenegrin referendum on independence. After having spent 88 years in various Yugoslav states, Serbia regained sovereignty. The new Constitution of the Republic of Serbia established the Serbian Armed Forces (SAF) under the democratic and civilian control of a bicephalous executive: a directly elected President of Serbia who is the Commander in Chief of SAF and Government of Serbia and is mandated to devise and implement defense policy. In 2007, laws on military and defense were adopted, further elaborating democratic and civilian control, including the professional autonomy and political neutrality of SAF. In terms of defense policy, while anticipating the unilateral declaration of the independence of Kosovo, Serbia declared military neutrality in December 2007 (Ejdus, 2014). However, after joining the UN in November 2001, Serbia gradually stepped up its participation in UN peacekeeping operations.15 Moreover, Serbia also established closed cooperation with NATO by joining its Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in December 2006. Finally, as an aspirant to EU membership (official candidate since 2011), Serbia has also taken part in EU crisis management missions and operations.

The first-generation reforms, however, did not entirely remove all tensions from civil-military relations. To begin with, the creation of a smaller but more professional armed forces designed to contribute to international peace and security was not entirely synchronized with the predominant threat perception which still prioritizes defense of territorial integrity (Ejdus, 2012). Moreover, the democratic control over the armed forces often impinged on the professional autonomy of its officer corps. The tensions culminated in December 2008 when the Chief of Staff of the SAF Zdravko Ponoš criticized the Minister of Defence Dragan Šutanovac for his lack of strategic direction, unassigned spending, and disrespect of the professional autonomy of the military. The latter accused Ponoš of violating civilian control and undermining the democratic order in the country. Soon after that, the President of Serbia Boris Tadić relieved Ponoš of his duties. This whistle-blowing act was indubitably a breach of political neutrality of the military. However, Ponoš’s case demonstrates that the principle of civilian control, in the absence of effective accountability and parliamentary control, may easily be turned into a cover-up for politicization and mismanagement of the military by civilian leadership.

By 2010 the first generation of reforms of civil-military relations was finished, and both a constitutional and institutional framework for democratic civilian control was in place. The officer corps internalized its new role as a professional force which should stay clear of politics (Ejdus, 2012). This happened despite a deep entrenchment of many illiberal practices which survived the fall of Milošević (Edmunds, 2009). Unfortunately, the second generation of reforms aiming at democratic governance of military and defense never properly took off (Cottey et al., 2002). The return of Milošević-era parties and leaders to power in 2012 resulted first in a stagnation of reforms and then backsliding from 2015 onward.16 Just like during the rule of Slobodan Milošević, Aleksandar Vučić concentrated the power in his own hands regardless of his position as the Defence Minister and Vice Prime Minister, then Prime Minister, and finally the President of Serbia. Continued media control, pressure on the opposition, and strategic manipulation of the electoral process led Freedom House to demote Serbia to the status of a partially free country in 2018, for the first time since 2000.17

The democratic backsliding since 2015 had several implications for civil-military relations in Serbia. To begin with, politicization of the civilian control of the military and the violation of professional autonomy of the officer corps to make operational decisions further consolidated. One graphic illustration was the tragic crash of a military helicopter in the Surčin airport, near Belgrade, in March 2015. The accident, which cost seven human lives, was a direct result of a political order to land there despite thick fog in Surčin. The political background of this order, which violated the usual chain of command, was most probably motivated by an ambition to use the landing as a photo opportunity for politicians aiming to present themselves as caring for a baby that was urgently being transported for treatment in a hospital in Belgrade.18

Moreover, the parliamentary control of the military has also deteriorated due to the capture of this institution by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska napredna stranka—SNS). The absence of determination by the ruling party to scrutinize the military and the low capacity of the National Assembly to do so had been one of the critical weaknesses even before 2012 (Hadžić et al., 2011). Since the arrival of SNS to power the problem went from bad to worse as the party turned the National Assembly into a rubber stump institution without any independent capacity for democratic control. This includes a substantial increase in the number of laws adopted through emergency procedures that do not require parliamentary hearing and debate, filibustering, and other forms of obstructions, including the denial of security vetting certificates to MPs from the opposition (Tepavac, 2019).

Also, the regime of Aleksandar Vučić has significantly reduced the capacity of independent state bodies to oversee the Serbian security and defense sector, including the military. An illustrative case in point is the smear campaign which was orchestrated in the regime-controlled media against the Ombudsman Saša Janković after he opened an investigation into an incident involving “The Cobras” during the Belgrade Pride Parade in 2014 (Vladisavljević & Krstić, 2019). Rodoljub Šabić, who served as the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection from 2004 until 2018, faced similar pressures. MoD was one of the institutions which often refused to provide the Commissioner with requested documents and implement his decisions.19 In 2017 he stated that although pressures existed during the previous government, it was now “stronger and more direct than ever.”20

Finally, the space for cooperation between MoD and SAF on the one hand and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) involved in the public oversight of the security sector on the other, have gradually shrunk. In 2017, the Serbian MoD even proposed a bylaw which aimed to restrict all academic research in the field of security and defense by introducing the obligation of governmental pre-approval. The draft bylaw was withdrawn only after a united and robust reaction of CSOs.21 What is more, CSOs dealing with security and defense matters have again come under accusations for treason and unpatriotic behavior by the government and the ruling elite in the regime-controlled media and social networks. This has been followed by threats of violence and intimidations by government trolls, GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations), and bots on social media, as well as several cases of attacks on property.22


Due to its decisive role in national liberation and state-building, the military has always enjoyed a high reputation among the Serbs. Thanks to this, the military in Serbia has a very strong tradition of robust involvement in politics. Since the outset of Serbia’s state-building in the first half of the 19th century, Serbia experienced four successful military coups,23 and many occasions when its armed forces were used to clamp down on domestic unrest.24 The reasons behind the robust involvement of armed forces in Serbian and Yugoslav politics have been diverse and ranged from an ambition to provide internal stability,25 defend national or corporate interests,26 or change foreign policy orientation.27 The relationship between military and democracy in Serbia has been ambiguous—in some situations the military was undermining democracy,28 while in others it was an agent of democratization.29

In October 2000, the military refused to obey orders by Slobodan Milošević to quash the opposition hence paving the way for democratic transition. However, the pacts made between the new political elites and the old guard in the security sector created reserved domains. This allowed JSO, an armed force under the official command of the head of civilian intelligence, which was second in strength only to the military, to conspire with a criminal gang and assassinate the Serbian Prime Minister in March 2003. The trigger was pulled by JSOs lieutenant colonel, which was itself heavily militarized although it did not officially belong to the military. Soon thereafter JSO was disbanded, while the rump Yugoslavia vanished thus creating political conditions for gradual placement of Serbia’s armed forces under democratic and civilian control.

Democratic transition, however, did not completely remove tensions from civil-military relations. To begin with, democratically elected political leaders have not always respected the professional autonomy of the officer corps and civilian control has been often used for the politicization of the military. Since 2012, Serbia’s democracy stagnated and then started backsliding. This creates the problem of state capture, characterized by the weakening of checks and balances and transfer of political power away from institutions into the hands of the ruling party and informal networks, all helmed by Aleksandar Vučić. Serbia’s parliament has been turned into a rubber stamp institution and independent state agencies have been sidelined, while CSOs critical of undemocratic practices have been labeled as traitors. Although the military seems to have internalized its new role of a politically neutral institution, the potential for civil-military tensions is therefore preserved not only by the ongoing democratic backsliding but also due to the unresolved status of Serbia’s former province Kosovo. The breakaway province still wields immense symbolic and emotional importance for many Serbs who consider it to be “the heart” of the nation (Ejdus, 2019). Although it is yet unclear if, when, and how the status of this erstwhile province will be permanently settled, it will have to include Serbia’s coming to terms with Kosovo’s independence. This might flame irredentism in society in general, and in the military thus creating tensions with political forces seeking compromise.

Further Reading

Edmunds, T. (2007). Security sector reform in transforming societies: Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

Hadžić, M. (2002). The Yugoslav people’s agony: The role of the Yugoslav People’s Army. London, UK: Ashgate.Find this resource:


Antić, Č. (2007). Istorija srpskog naroda [History of the Serbian People]. Belgrade, Serbia: Vukotić Media.Find this resource:

Bebler, A. (1997). The regionwide perspective on post-communist civil-military relations. In A. A. Bebler (Ed.), Civil-military relations in post-communist states: Central and Eastern Europe in transition (pp. 65–77). Westport, CT: Praeger.Find this resource:

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (1988, January). Yugoslavia: Testing the chances of a military coup.Find this resource:

Clark, C. (2012). The sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. London, UK: Penguin Books.Find this resource:

Ćorovi’, V. (1997). Istorija Srpskog naroda [History of the Serbian People] Belgrade, Serbia: Glas srpski i Ars Libri.Find this resource:

Cottey, A., Edmunds, T., & Forster, A. (2002). The second generation problematic: Rethinking democracy and civil-military relations. Armed Forces & Society, 29(1), 31–56.Find this resource:

Dean, R. W. (1976). Civil-military relations in Yugoslavia, 1971–1975. Armed Forces & Society, 3(1), 17–58.Find this resource:

Edmunds, T. (2005). Civil–military relations in Serbia–Montenegro: An army in search of a state. European Security, 14(1), 115–135.Find this resource:

Edmunds, T. (2009). Illiberal resilience in Serbia. Journal of Democracy, 20(1), 128–142.Find this resource:

Ejdus, F. (2012). State building and images of the democratic soldier in Serbia. In S. Mannitz (Ed.), Democratic civil-military relations: Soldiering in 21st century Europe (pp. 226–248). London, UK: Routledge.Find this resource:

Ejdus, F. (2014). Serbia’s military neutrality: Origins, effects and challenges. Croatian International Relations Review, 20(71), 43–71.Find this resource:

Ejdus, F. (2016). Muddling through a rocky road: Security sector reforms in Serbia. In R. Ondrejsćak (Ed.), Security sector reform: Global case studies (pp. 42–64). Bratislava, Slovakia: CENAA.Find this resource:

Ejdus, F. (2019). Crisis and ontological insecurity: Serbia’s anxiety over Kosovo’s secession. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Gow, J. (2002). The European exception: Civil–military relations in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). In A. Cottey, T. Edmunds, & A. Forster (Eds.), Democratic control of the military in postcommunist Europe: Guarding the guards (pp. 194–211). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Gow, J., & Zveržhanovski, I. (2013). Security, democracy and war crimes: Security sector transformation in Serbia. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Hadžić, M. (2000). The Army’s use of trauma. In N. Popov (Ed.), The road to war in Serbia: Trauma and catharsis (pp. 509–537). Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press.Find this resource:

Hadžić, M., Petrović, P., & Stojanović, S. (2009). Godišnjak reforme sektora bezbednosti u Srbiji 2007–2008 [Yearbook of Sercurity Sector Reform in Serbia 2007-2008]. Belgrade, Serbia: Center for Civil-Military Relations.Find this resource:

Hadžić, M., & Stojanović, S. (Eds.) (2011). Godišnjak reforme sektora bezbednosti u Srbiji 2008-2011 [Yearbook of Security Sector Reform in Serbia 2008-2011]. Belgrade, Serbia: Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.Find this resource:

Kazimirović V. (2016). Crna Ruka: ličnosti i događaji u Srbiji od majskog prevrata 1903. do Solunskog procesa 1917 [Black Hand: People and events in Serbia from the 1903 May Coup until the 1917 Thessaloniki Process]. Novi Sad, Serbia: Prometej.Find this resource:

Marković, S. G. (2014). Teorija o ekonomskom poreklu demokratije i slučaj demokratije kao intelektualnog projekta u Srbiji. [Theory of economic origins of democracy and the case of democracy as intellectual project in Serbia]. Ekonomske ideje i praksa, 12, 67–91.Find this resource:

Mitrović, A. (2004). Srbija u prvom svetskom ratu [Serbia in World War I]. Belgrade, Serbia: Stubovi kulture.Find this resource:

Rokvić, V., Jeftić, Z., & Ivaniš, Ž. (2013). Civil–military relations and democratic control over the armed forces in the Republic of Serbia. Armed Forces & Society, 39(4), 675–694.Find this resource:

Stojanović, D. (2010). Ulje na vodi: ogledi iz istorije sadašnjice Srbije [Oil on Water: Essays on Serbian History of the Present]. Belgrade, Serbia: Peščanik.Find this resource:

Tatalović, S. (1997). Civilno-vojni odnosi. [Civil-Military Relations]. Politička misao: časopis za politologiju, 34(2), 61–82.Find this resource:

Tepavac, T. (2019). Narodna skupština republike Srbije: hram ili paravan demokratije? [National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia: A temple or a façade of democracy] Belgrade, Serbia: Crta.Find this resource:

Vladisavljević, N. (2008). Serbia’s antibureaucratic revolution: Milošević, the fall of communism and nationalist mobilization. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Vladisavljević, N., Krstić, A., & Pavlović, J. (2019). Communicating power and resistance in democratic decline: The 2015 smear campaign against Serbia’s ombudsman. In K. Voltmer, C. Christensen, I. Neverla, N. Stremlau, B. Thomass, N. Vladisavljević, & H. Wasserman (Eds.), Media, communication and the struggle for democratic change (pp. 205–228). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Vlajković, V. (2004a). Vojna tajna I deo [Military Secret Part I]. Belgrade, Serbia: Helsinški odbor za ljudska prava.Find this resource:

Vlajković, V. (2004b). Vojna tajna II deo[Military Secret Part II]. Belgrade, Serbia: Helsinški odbor za ljudska prava.Find this resource:


(1.) At the time, Yugoslavia was a member of anti-revisionist regional alliances such as the Small Entente with Czechoslovakia and Poland (1920–1921) and the Balkan Pact with Greece and Turkey (1934).

(2.) The state was officially called the Federative People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (Federativna Narodna Republika Jugoslavija—FNRJ) until 1963 when it was renamed the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (Socijalistička Federativna Republika Jugoslavija—SFRJ).

(3.) From 1945 to 1948 it was called The Yugoslav Army (Jugoslovenska armija—JA).

(4.) While the first articulations of this policy appeared in the 1950s, it officially became SFRJ’s defense doctrine in 1969. The catalysts for the creation of this doctrine were domestic events such as the fall of Ranković, an advocate of Unitarianism in 1966, but also international events such as the Six Days War (1967) and the Prague Spring (1968) (Tatalović, 1997, p. 65).

(5.) Tito presided over the body until his death. While the presidency initially had 23 members, the 1974 constitution reduced it to nine.

(6.) In 1971, Serbs and Montenegrins comprised 39 and 2.5% of the Yugoslav population and 60—70% and 8% of the officer corps (respectively). Croats, on the other hand, comprised 22% of the population and only 14% of officer corps (Dean, 1976, p. 71).

(7.) According to one of its leaders, the main idea behind the establishment of the party was to use it as an instrument of civilian rule in the interregnum in the aftermath of a planned military coup and before any new elections could generate new democratically legitimate authorities. Source: “Kadrovska baza” [Human resources pool] Octover 11, 2001 The party won only 0.35% in the 1992 federal elections and later fused with the Yugoslav Left, the party of Milošević’s wife, Mirjana Marković.

(8.) JSO (a.k.a. the Red Berets) was established in 1996 within the civilian State Security Service (Služba državne bezbednosti—SDB) through a merger of various paramilitary units. Although it was officially part of SDB, it was subordinated only to its director. JSO had a prominent role during the war in Kosovo 1998/1999 as well as in fighting armed insurgency in South Serbia in 2000/2001. JSO’s commander from 1999 to 2002 was Milorad Luković who earned the nom de guerre “Legija” (Legion) due to his service in the French Foreign Legion during the late 1980s.

(9.) Although both Đinđić and Koštunica made informal deals with the most important officials in the security sector, the former did it for pragmatic reasons while the latter was more ideologically driven.

(10.) “Pavković: Koštunica govori neistinu,”[Pavković: Koštunica doesn’t speak the truth] B92, July 10, 2002,

(11.) “Ubistvo premijera Đinđića: politička pozadina.” [Assasination of premier Đinđić: political background]. Insajder, March 12, 2019,

(12.) JSO’s Lieutenant Colonel Zvezdan Jovanovic, who pulled the trigger, and his former commander Milorad Ulemek “Legija” were arrested and sentenced to a maximum of 40 years for the assassination.

(13.) “Krivična prijava za oružanu pobunu.” [Criminal charge for an armed rebellion], Peščanik, November 10, 2010.

(14.) The second generation is aimed at the implementation of principles of democratic governance.

(15.) Yugoslavia was one of the founding members of the UN in 1945. When SFRY disintegrated, the UN did not accept FRY’s claim to be the successor state of SFRJ and insisted that a new membership application was needed. During the 1990s, due to international isolation and sanctions, FRY did not take part in UN peacekeeping operations. In October 2000, a month after Milošević was ousted, FRY applied for membership and was admitted on November 1, 2000.

(16.) Nations in Transit 2018, Serbia: Country Profile,

(18.) “Tek sad je pao” [Only now has he fallen] Vreme, 7 Jul 2016.

(20.) “Šabić: Politički pritisci na nezavisne institucije”,[ Šabić: political pressures on independent institutions] Osservatorio balcani e caucaso, 24. maj 2017.

(21.) The Initiative to Withdraw the Government’s Draft Bylaw Which Restricts Research in the Field of Defens, April 6, 2017

(22.) BCSP was attacked for advocating for the right to question security policy, 1 May 2019.

(23.) In 1868, 1897, 1903, and 1941.

(24.) In 1883, 1929, 1991, 1998/1998, and 2001.

(25.) 1868, 1929, 1980–1991.

(26.) 1903, 2003.

(27.) 1941.

(28.) In 1893 and 1929.

(29.) In 1868 and 1903.