The end of Djindjic

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

The assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the pro-West Serbian Prime Minister, presumably by a criminal gang, points to his links with such gangs and to the state of law and order in the country.

ALTHOUGH the Yugoslav federation formally ceased to exist in February this year, it has not helped the cause of peace and stability in the Balkans. Many Western governments, which were instrumental in the destabilisation and ultimate dissolution of the Yugoslav federation, are now regretting the consequences of their actions. The assassination of their favourite politician, Zoran Djindjic, the Prime Minister of Serbia, in the second week of March in broad daylight outside his office, has only deepened their disillusionment.

Djindjic was the man handpicked by the West to replace former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led war against Yugoslavia. A man of few political scruples, Djindjic donned the nationalist mantle whenever it suited him. However, he was chosen to bring Serbia back into the social democratic mainstream of Europe. He was also given the unpopular task of convincing the Serb population that Kosovo was a lost cause. During the NATO-led war, Djindjic, like most other Serb politicians opposed to Milosevic, had taken a super-patriotic position on the emotive Kosovo issue. After the war, Djindjic and his Democratic Party tried to put Kosovo on the back burner.

Djindjic played a key role in overthrowing the Milosevic government. The game plan was hatched in Washington and Brussels. The United States State Department funded Djindjic and the Opposition in the run-up to the presidential election of 2000. Vojislav Kostunica was the Opposition's candidate for the largely ceremonial post of President. Djindjic had to give way to Kostunica, as the latter was more acceptable to the 20 disparate Opposition parties and to the general public.

There were also stories about Djindjic's involvement in smuggling of cigarettes, a very profitable activity in the country. Despite Opposition demands, the government never allowed an independent investigation into the charges.

Owing to international sanctions, the Yugoslav economy since the early 1990s was kept afloat by smuggling rings. The Yugoslav state turned a blind eye to their activities. But in the course of time, the smuggling rings and their patrons gained undue leverage in the politics of the country.

It was only a day after Djindjic had made the decision to arrest 200 of the most notorious figures involved in crime in the country that he was assassinated. Among those who were to be incarcerated was Milorad Lukovic, who is the chief suspect in the killing. Ironically, it was Lukovic who had played an important role in helping Djindjic effect a relatively bloodless overthrow of the socialist government led by Milosevic. Lukovic, along with one Captain Dragan, was part of the elite "Red Berets'', the Special Operations unit of the Serbian Police created in the early 1990s. The core of the Red Berets was the right-wing militia led by the warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, who was killed in mysterious circumstances in January 2000. The Red Berets, which became an elite government commando unit and were armed with the most sophisticated weaponry, were active in Kosovo and other parts of Serbia. They stood out for their ruthlessness and savagery. Many Red Beret soldiers were mercenaries or had criminal antecedents.

After the loss of Kosovo, the Red Berets were relocated permanently to Belgrade where they virtually became the praetorian guards of the Yugoslav President. After the crucial elections of 2000, when those opposed to Milosevic were planning a rally in Belgrade, the Red Berets came into the political picture in a dramatic way. Djindjic saw them as the only force capable of stopping the Opposition from physically evicting the Milosevic government from office. Milosevic had conceded defeat in the presidential polls but demanded a run-off as Kostunica, the Opposition's candidate had not got the requisite 50 per cent of the vote. Milosevic, quoting the Yugoslav Constitution, had announced the date for a run-off.

However, the Opposition was in a hurry to grab power. Djindjic, who spearheaded the Opposition's efforts, was sure that the police and the Army would not thwart the Opposition's plans. The only potential stumbling block was the Red Berets. Djindjic sorted out the problem after a secret meeting with Lukovic. Lukovic assured Djindjic that the Red Berets would stay on the sidelines. Things went according to plan and Milosevic was overthrown. The Red Berets were not disbanded but they ceased to be an elite formation. For a brief period, the Red Berets remained the favourites of the Opposition, for their role in the October uprising. As a quid pro quo for their support to Djindjic, the Red Berets expected the Serbian government at least to turn a blind eye to their shady dealings with criminal gangs.

SINCE the ouster of Milosevic, the law and order situation in Serbia has deteriorated considerably. Criminal clans have fought daylight battles, and the government machinery has not been able to solve a single homicide or catch the perpetrators of heinous crimes. Competing criminal clans successfully muscled into legitimate business. An unholy nexus emerged among the criminal gangs, the police and other state structures. The most powerful criminal gang at present is the Zemun clan, which has strong links with the Red Berets.

With public anger over the law and order situation mounting, the government in Belgrade announced last year that it planned to disband the Red Berets. It was also revealed that the Red Berets, in connivance with the criminal clans, were involved in killings and kidnappings in Belgrade and other parts of Serbia. The disappearance of the former Yugoslav President, Ivan Slambolic, was linked to the Zemun clan.

But Lukovic was not going to fade away that easily. In a show of defiance, the Red Berets left their barracks and blocked the national highway for two days after news of the government's impending decision leaked out. Djindjic was forced to negotiate with Lukovic. The Red Beret commander was decommissioned but allowed to roam free. Recently, he forcibly disarmed two policemen and fired in the air during the birthday celebration in honour of Arkan's widow, who is a popular singer and a right-wing icon in Serbia.

The recent chain of events were sparked off by the deliberate destruction of expensive road-building equipment belonging to Defence Roads, a company owned by a rival criminal clan, in broad daylight. The clan leader fled abroad and was quick to divulge detailed information connecting the Zemun gang and Lukovic to some of the recent killings and kidnappings. The media and political parties demanded that the government take tough action. Djindjic, who was called "Little Slobo'' by his opponents for his authoritarian streak, was finally preparing to make a decisive move against Lukovic and other figures associated with the Zemun clan. (Slobo is the nickname of Slobodan Milosevic).

Although the government's plans were not officially announced, Djindjic's enemies obviously knew about them. After Djindjic's assassination, none of the 200 criminals on the list could be traced. The job of killing Djindjic was apparently given to three contract killers from neighbouring Croatia.

At the time of his demise, Djindjic's popularity was on the wane. Many Serbians had not forgiven him for the role he played in the handing over of Milosevic to the International Criminal Court at The Hague in 2001. The West had then given Djindjic an ultimatum - either hand over Milosevic or lose $1.5 billion in aid money. In recent months, other senior members of the previous government have been dispatched to The Hague. Djindjic was believed to have been on the verge of arresting Bosnian Serb general Radko Mladic with the intention of sending him to The Hague tribunal.

Djindjic's relations with Kostunica had deteriorated further in recent months after two consecutive presidential elections failed to produce a result. Kostunica was the clear front-runner in both the elections, but since 50 per cent of the voters failed to cast their votes the elections were considered null and void. According to the Serbian Constitution, at least 50 per cent of the electorate has to cast its vote for the election to be valid. Djindjic did not try to get the Constitution amended or hasten another election. He wanted Kostunica to be sidelined politically.

An estimated 5,00,000-strong-crowd attended Djindjic's funeral to express its grief and anger. However, the schisms in Serbian politics are far from healed. The right-wing Radical Party refused even to let the Serbian flag fly at half mast to pay respects to the departed leader. Its legislators boycotted the Parliament session called to pay homage to Djindjic. Kostunica kept a low profile at the funeral.

Djindjic's assassination is the first of a European Prime Minister after Sweden's Olof Palme.

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