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Ethnic Harassment in the Serbian Core
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Pljevlja's Aborted Paramilitary Coup

Events in Pljevlja, a small Sandžak town near the Bosnian border, are a case in point. The government allowed Serbian irregulars to use Pljevlja

in 1992 and 1993 as a staging ground, providing them with access to local Yugoslav army barracks and, allegedly, to weapons. When Pljevlja's irregulars intimidated and harassed local Muslims, moreover, local, republican, and federal authorities turned a blind eye, hoping perhaps that the violence would force Pljevlja's Muslims out. Once the paramilitaries took more resolute action, however, seizing control of the town and announcing their intent to force Muslims out en masse, the Serbiancontrolled Yugoslav authorities sent reinforcements and swiftly defused the attempted coup. Pljevlja's Muslims were frightened and suffered material loss, but they were not killed or forcibly evicted from their homes in large numbers.

Pljevlja's central paramilitary organizer in 1992 and 1993 was Milika (čeko) Dačević, leader of the Pljevlja branch of the Serbian četnik Movement. "There were many paramilitaries at that time in the town," recalled Dino, a local Muslim political leader, "but čeko brought them all together."[14] In addition to his charismatic appeal, čeko's ties to the Belgrade-based nationalist radical, Vojislav Šešelj, seemed crucial. "čeko was Šešelj's designated man in Pljevlja," recalled Stevo, a Montenegrin journalist, "and was also close to the Serbian ministry of interior."[15] This very agency, it will be recalled, was home to the plainclothes Serbian state security apparatus, linchpin of the Belgrade-to-Bosnia network. C ć eko, in other words, was a middle-tier operative of the clandestine Serbian Military Line.

Estimates of čeko's following vary from dozens to thousands. Zoran, Pljevlja's mayor throughout the 1990s, insisted that čeko had successfully mobilized only a "few dozen unemployed people, riff raff from Pljevlja and from all across Serbia."[16] Muslim leaders in the town, however, put the numbers at several thousand. čeko himself claimed in an interview to control 4,000 men, including Bosnian Serb fighters from across the nearby border.[17] čeko used Pljevlja as his rear base, according to the same report, traveling "regularly to the town of Goražde, just 40 miles away in Bosnia," returning "with loot to sell in the local market, including video recorders and refrigerators."

Zoran, Pljevlja's mayor, dismissed čeko as a local troublemaker bent on stirring up anti-Muslim violence, saying the paramilitary leader was a "criminal and a pathological thief" who falsely presented himself as defender of the Serbian people, "but really only cared about stealing the homes and businesses of Muslims." Milan, one of Zoran's senior aides, called čeko "an ignorant, uneducated man who attracted stupid and violent criminals."[18] He recalled that čeko used to "scream that all the

Turks [a derogatory term for Muslims] should get out, or be killed. He was trying to stir up the least educated, the unemployed, into attacking the Muslims." čeko's favorite saying, according to the mayor, was that "Pljevlja was a small town, and that there was only room for Serbs, not Turks." čeko, it seemed, wanted to apply Bosnian frontier logic to Pljevlja, resisting distinctions between Muslims living in the Sandžak and those in Bosnia. Muslims were Muslims, and they should be forced out. Serbia and its smaller federal partner Montenegro, however, felt differently, distinguishing between Muslims on the Bosnian side of the border, whom čeko was entitled to attack, and Muslims on the Yugoslav side, who were off-limits.

Muslims from Pljevlja believe that in 1992 and 1993, čeko was politically influential at the local level. "čeko did as he liked in town, and the state could do nothing about it," said Dino, the Pljevlja Muslim political activist. "Even the mayor was afraid of him." The authorities would not criticize him in public and did not protest when čeko's irregulars threatened Muslims in the street, smashed their store windows, and gave strident anti-Muslim speeches. It seemed that in the summer of 1992, čeko's power was even beginning to rival that of the mayor. "Increasingly, it looked like Pljevlja and the surrounding areas belonged to čeko and others like him, not to the state," recalled Stevo, the Montenegrin journalist then covering events. As one Western reporter wrote at the time, "While the police say they could arrest him [čeko] … if they wanted, he and his followers appear to do what they like. For example, despite a line of several hundred cars for gasoline at the local station—which had a sign up saying no gasoline was left—Mr. čeko was able to go straight to the front of the line where he was immediately, and deferentially, served."[19] Some Muslim leaders recalled that čeko even warned he might "annex" Pljevlja to the adjacent Bosnian Serb state, adding that they believed many of Pljevlja's policemen supported čeko's beliefs.

The irregulars, or perhaps some of their local sympathizers, soon began a campaign of nighttime bombings aimed at Muslim businesses. "The Serbs wanted us out," said Dino, the local Muslim political activist, explaining that the "state, čeko, the mayor, everyone, wanted no Muslims in Sandžak at all, and especially not in Pljevlja, so close to the border." Some Muslims feared that ethnic cleansing was about to begin. Nusret, a prominent local Muslim businessman, said that "the state first fired Muslims from state businesses, then accused us of being disloyal secessionists, and finally turned to čeko, telling him to terrify us into fleeing

with his bombings. If that didn't work, they were planning to kill us."[20] Yet while local authorities may have privately hoped the Muslims would leave, they did not tolerate open attacks on the Yugoslav side of the border, since that would contradict Belgrade's efforts to portray the new federal Yugoslavia as an orderly, law-abiding area. The paramilitaries appeared to understand this constraint, if only instinctively, targeting their bombs so as to cause no casualties. The nighttime bombings terrified local Muslims, but did not trigger a vigorous state response.

In early August 1992, however, čeko's men went too far, triggering a state crackdown. The drama began with čeko's arrest by local policemen for a minor infraction. When his fighters learned the police might hold čeko overnight, they launched a coup. "It was a very precise military operation," recalled Senad, an official in Pljevoja's local Muslim aid agency.[21] "They seized the radio station, cut communications, blocked the roads leading into town, and even put machine gun nests in the hills above the town." Pljevlja's Muslim population was terrified, hiding in their homes as irregulars in the street shouted slogans against the police, the Yugoslav federation, and Muslims. "čeko's men were demanding that we leave and that our homes be given to Serbs," Senad claimed. "They wanted this place to look like Bosnia, where Muslims' property and lives are worthless." Pljevlja seemed on the verge of slipping into frontier-like status, and a wave of deadly, Bosnia-style ethnic cleansing seemed poised to begin.

The state's response, however, was both swift and unequivocal. Momir Bulatović, then president of Montenegro and Slobodan Milošević's close political ally, flew to Pljevlja in a helicopter, accompanied by a high-ranking officer of the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav army. The two men negotiated with čeko in the mayor's office while Yugoslav military reinforcements were deployed around town. Yugoslav federal president Dobrica ćosić, a famed Serbian nationalist and intellectual, provided moral support and pressed Vojislav Šešelj, čeko's political superior in Belgrade, to counsel restraint. The combined pressure worked, and the paramilitaries de-escalated in return for čeko's release. Federal forces continued to patrol the area, gradually reasserting central state control. čeko's fighters continued to sally forth into Bosnia, but refrained from threatening Pljevlja's Muslims too openly. Some local Muslims fled but most remained, and no homes were destroyed or looted.

The attempted coup was a dramatic illustration of the state's resolve to block ethnic cleansing in the Serbian core. čeko and his men were cross-border predators, attacking Muslims in Bosnia with Serbian and

Yugoslav federal support. Inside Serbia and Montenegro, however, local, republican, and federal officials were uncomfortable with blatant rampages against Sandžak's Muslims. Seeking to uphold Yugoslavia's lawful image at home and abroad, officials felt constrained to suppress openly predatory paramilitary activity in their own backyard. They were willing to tolerate nighttime bombings, but would not permit more drastic measures. Officials had effectively had set a cap on anti-Muslim violence in Pljevlja, preventing it from rising above the level of ethnic harassment. When čeko's men threatened to physically tear Pljevlja from the core and attach it to the Bosnian frontier, the state cracked down. The border thus functioned as a signaling mechanism, defining different areas for ethnic cleansing and harassment. Two institutional settings had been created—a Bosnian frontier and a Serbian core—and they powerfully shaped Serbian repertoires of state violence.

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