General Zivota Panic

Army chief of staff to Slobodan Milosevic
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The Independent Online

Zivota Panic, army officer: born Gornja Crnisava, Serbia 3 November 1933; Commander, First Military District, Yugoslav People's Army (later Army of Yugoslavia) 1991-92, Chief of Staff 1992-93; died Belgrade 19 November 2003.

As the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Europe's bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, entered its initial deadly phase, General Zivota Panic was drafted in to oversee the transformation of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) into its cut-down successor, the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ). Panic's appointment as the VJ's Chief of Staff in May 1992 coincided with his army's formal withdrawal from Bosnia.

The pull-out was part of an elaborate game orchestrated by Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, who sought to portray the conflict in Bosnia as a civil war in which Yugoslavia was not intervening. The conversion of the JNA into the VJ reflected recognition at the politico-military level of the demise of the old Yugoslavia of six republics, bequeathed to his successors by President Tito, founder of Communist-ruled Yugoslavia, and its replacement by five independent states.

The VJ became the army of one of the five successor states: the rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). Panic's tenure as the VJ's first Chief of Staff lasted only a little over a year. But during that tumultuous period he toyed with the idea of removing Milosevic - only to refrain from taking sides when Serbia's strongman staged his own mini-coup against his political opponents. Subsequently the General was mired in allegations of corruption when Milosevic's allies accused him of allowing his son to make excessive profits from contracts to supply the army.

Yet, whatever the personal reasons for his sacking in August 1993, Panic's removal was part of a purge in which 42 generals were retired from the VJ. It was one of Milosevic's periodic moves to consolidate his control over the army by reducing its bloated officer corps and replacing established - and possibly more independent-minded - generals with his own creatures.

Panic was a tank officer who rose steadily through the ranks in 1970s and 1980s after completing his studies at the National Army School. At the time of the war in Croatia in 1991 he was commander of the First Military District, headquartered in Belgrade. His units were responsible for the three-month siege of Vukovar, the town in eastern Croatia, which was destroyed by the JNA's shelling more comprehensibly than any other settlement of its size during the wars of the 1990s.

After Vukovar's fall in November 1991, some 300 of its Croatian defenders were removed from the town's hospital and executed at a nearby farm. Three JNA officers were subsequently indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague for the Vukovar killings, but Panic himself was never charged by the tribunal. However, he was belatedly indicted, along with other senior JNA ex-officers, by Croatian prosecutors in March 2003.

After the capture of Vukovar, Panic said that the JNA was ready to march on Zagreb. Whether that - and the overthrow of Croatia's government - was a realistic option was never put to the test. In his later writings Panic was the first former senior JNA officer to cast light on the JNA's major weakness - its lack of reliable and strongly motivated troops. That meant that, at Vukovar and elsewhere, much of the close infantry fighting was done by Serb ultra-nationalist para-militaries while the army used its artillery and tanks. In any case, an all-out attack on Croatia did not fit in with Milosevic's less ambitious plans, which were aimed at securing control over Croatia's - and later Bosnia's - Serb-inhabited regions in a bid to carve out a greater Serbia from the ruins of the old Yugoslavia.

Vukovar's capture was one of the JNA's few notable successes. So, when Milosevic was looking round to install a new chief of staff, Panic seemed an obvious candidate for the job. Moreover, he was a reliable and pliant officer and a professional soldier with few of the political pretensions of others among the top brass.

Perhaps most importantly, Panic was a Serb from Serbia - he came from the Morava region in the centre of the country. That was unusual because most of the senior generals, including his predecessor, General Blagoje Adzic, were Serbs from Bosnia or Croatia. That became crucially important when Bosnia was recognised as an independent country in April 1992 - a move that coincided with a full-scale onslaught on the newly proclaimed state by the Bosnian Serb separatists.

The JNA was, in practical terms, split into two armies. Its nominal successor was the VJ, under Panic, which was pulled out of Bosnia to maintain Belgrade's fiction that Yugoslavia was not involved in the conflict. Meanwhile, the units of the JNA that were made up of Bosnian Serbs were converted into the Army of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia, the VRS.

Panic set about organising the VJ as the streamlined army of Serbia and Montenegro. Behind the façade of non-interference, the VJ continued to channel supplies to its Bosnian Serb comrades-in-arms. But while the war continued to drag on in Bosnia, Panic found a fresh challenge at home trying to deal with the political in-fighting in Belgrade.

Milan Panic, Yugoslavia's new prime minister, who was a Serb-born American businessman, became convinced that the war in Bosnia and the consequent United Nations sanctions on Yugoslavia would not end while Milosevic stayed in office. During the power struggle Prime Minister Panic (who was not related to his chief of staff) reportedly suggested to General Panic, his tennis partner, that the army should arrest Milosevic while he was having a late-night drink at the Prime Minister's home. General Panic seemed to go along with the idea, but asked for assurance that the US would support the move. That was something the Prime Minister could not promise, and the plan - or pipedream - was quickly shelved.

Just a few months later, in the autumn of 1992, it was Milosevic who staged his own mini-coup. While Prime Minister Panic was out of the country, Milosevic's Serb police occupied the headquarters of Milan Panic's Yugoslav federal police in Belgrade. Apart from removing valuable intelligence files, the occupation was a clear demonstration of who was really in control. General Panic understood immediately. When asked by the Prime Minister if he would use the army to retake the building, he dismissed the event as a "storm in a teacup".

General Panic's refusal to intervene helped Milosevic ward off the threat to his position. But it did not save Panic's position as Chief of Staff. In early 1993 he came under attack from Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the ultra-nationalist radicals and Milosevic's ally at the time. Panic was accused of abusing his position by making it possible for his entrepreneur son, Goran, to supply the army with anything from potatoes to toilet paper, at allegedly inflated prices.

The corruption scandal had every appearance of being politically motivated. It was also designed to humiliate the VJ. Panic's sacking in August 1993 came less than three months before he was, in any case, due to reach retirement age. But his dismissal and the purge of the VJ's high command at the same time marked another stage in Milosevic's campaign to weaken the army and build up the heavily armed special police as his preferred security force.

Gabriel Partos