The untold Yugoslavian arms trade scandal UPDATED DOCUMENTS
Journalists Matej Šurc and Blaž Zgaga investigated the illegal trade of arms in Slovenia during the early 1990s and chronicled their findings in the trilogy In the Name of the State. The first volume of the trilogy, Sell, published in June 2011, focused on the sale of arms and ammunition. The second volume, Resell, appeared in October 2011 and dealt with the purchase of arms abroad and subsequent resale to Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the UN arms embargo. The third volume, Cover-up, describes how the arms smugglers managed to keep their activities largely concealed for the last twenty years and was published in April 2012. Time for an interview with the authors, Matej Šurc and Blaž Zgaga.
UPDATED: For a summary of each of the three books in English + presentation shown at dataharvest in Bruxelles see Documents.
Can you explain what the trilogy is about in such a way that a foreigner can understand? Who exactly sold weapons to whom again, and why?
“In the 1990s, after being one of the most prosperous socialist states during the Cold War, former Yugoslavia fell into a maelstrom of military conflicts, massive killings and war crimes.
Many thousands of tons of arms and ammunition were illegally transported to the battlefields during the UN arms embargo. The major logistic hub was Slovenia, which sold huge amounts of arms confiscated in Yugoslav People's Army warehouses on its territory to Croatian and Bosnian Muslims. Additionally, more than 20 ships loaded with arms sailed to the Slovene port of Koper. These ships came from Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Ukraine, but many more countries were involved in the enormous UN embargo violation; such a huge logistics operation could only have been executed with the approval of the international community. The arms trade definitely changed the military balance in the region.
As shipments were illegal, many Slovene, Croatian and Bosnian intelligence officers and leaders were forced to buy weapons on the black market, controlled by military intelligence services of Eastern European countries operating outside of the law. They paid millions of Dollars and Deutschmarks in cash and thus cleared the way for corruption and theft. Cash money disappeared by the millions, leading the politicians, military and intelligence officers who had been involved to become rich members of the new elite. They managed to cover up their illicit activities for the next two decades to come and effectively corrupted the judicial system in their countries.
One of the consequences of their activities today is that the area of former Yugoslavia still looks like a ‘black hole’ in Europe after all these years, with no development or perspectives, but with massive corruption and organized crime closely connected to politics.”
Why did you decide to investigate the arms trade during the Yugoslav wars?
“We couldn’t understand why such a huge case had never been fully investigated before. Some aspects of the matter were known and had been touched upon, but the whole truth had never been revealed yet. We always compare it with an Albanian submarine: it sometimes briefly emerges at the surface for a short while ‘to get some air’ and then disappears into the deep again very quickly. And of course, the scandal always happens to be brought up during electoral battles. After the votes have been cast, it disappears just like that. Politicians and their parties only use it to slander the opposition. If one party comes out with one affair, another party does the same with another affair, creating a never-ending cycle of propaganda-like allegations and accusations. What we wanted the Slovene people and the rest of the world to know was that the actual truth was still out there and that the war profiteers of those days are still walking around in Slovenia. “
You obtained thousands of pages of documents through FOI legislation. What type of documents were they?
“We tried to gain access to as many different types of documents as we could. The majority of documents we obtained were classified police and secret service cable messages and intelligence reports, but in the end our databases included many other types as well. Port authority and shipping documents, ammunition warehouse releases, hundreds of pages of eavesdropping notes, police analyses, interpol cables, bank account information, parliamentary inquiry reports, hearings of witnesses, diplomatic cables and, quite importantly, documentation and reports from international conferences on Yugoslavia and the conflicts. A special thanks is due here to our Croatian and Bosnian colleagues Saša Leković and Ecad Hecimovic for helping us obtain and analyse the documents.”
Were there any difficulties in obtaining the documents?
“There was considerable obstruction from parliamentary officials who tried to prevent access to the documents. Had they succeeded, the documents would have been locked in somewhere for 30 or 40 years to come. Then there was the issue of timing. We sent our first request for documents to the information commissioner, still one of the most efficient officials in Slovenia, in April 2008 and only received the data fifteen months later.”
How did you go about analyzing that huge amount of data?
“Before analyzing the date we found in the documents, there was another obstacle to overcome. A number of documents we obtained had been forged by certain individuals of the military secret service in order to mislead investigators and journalists like ourselves. We managed to filter them out, however, by cross-checking as much information with other sources as possible.
We used Excel for our analysis. We created four separate databases in which we manually entered our data. The first database held all data extracted from police cables and other intelligence reports, the second all logistics company reports. All documents having to do with sea transport or shipping went into the third database and in the fourth we inventoried all weapons. Those four separate datasets formed the base for our work.”
What was the importance of information from sources in relation to the wobbed documents?
“Of course we made use of tips and testimonies from various sources, which supplied us with some invaluable pieces of information. The real worth of the investigation, however, lies in the fact that we were able to work with official, signed documents and internationally recognised reports. They provided the result with a credibility that would have lacked in any investigation based solely on individuals’ testimonies.”
Was it immediately clear that the findings would not fit into one single publication?
“At first the idea was to combine our findings into one single book, but it didn’t take very long for us to realise that that would not be possible. Together with the director of the publishing house we decided instead to publish them as a trilogy, each volume focusing on another aspect of the scandal.
Although the trilogy has now been completed, we have not finished analysing all the documents yet. So in fact the investigation is still going on. We will publish all noteworthy observations and analyses from this last stretch online.”
The research was co-financed by a Journalismfund.eu research grant.
Written by Rafael Njotea