The assassination of Serbia’s prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, by a sharpshooter in broad daylight in front of a government building on Wednesday, signals that all is not well within the borders of the metropolitan power of the Balkans. The chief tactician of Serbia’s Prudent Revolution that overthrew Milosevic in October 2000, Djindjic was a controversial figure who courted the West with mixed success, achieved limited but substantial economic and legal reform largely by surrounding himself with honest and skilled technocrats, faced much internal obfuscation, and made many enemies along the way. The heir to the throne of Serbia expressed succinctly what many are feeling, namely that “his departure from the political scene is a great loss for the whole country and all its citizens.”
While never enjoying much popular support (he had hardly ever polled over 20 percent) but increasingly behaving as if he had been granted a strong mandate, Djindjic’s administration was dogged by rumors of his links to organized crime as well as by his close association with the will of the Western powers — especially Germany and the United States — which did not play well at home given the still vivid memories of the 78 day American-led 1999 bombing campaign.
Djindjic was responsible for shipping Milosevic and other prominent men of yesterday to the Hague Tribunal, and had promised to hand over three other indicted war criminals thought to be on Serbian territory by June. Chief among them was Ratko Mladic, the wartime head of the Bosnian Serb army, widely believed to have presided over the murders at Srebrenica during the Bosnian civil war, among other crimes.
While rightly sharing the view that the Hague Tribunal is a political and not a juridical institution, Djindjic understood that there are no absolute standards of justice in the world of international relations; he understood that those who retreat before the responsibilities of statesmanship or invoke such standards in the name of principle against necessity either do not understand politics and should withdraw before its ugliness, or be exposed as cowards when confronted with the ungracious nature of the world.
Djindjic was also responsible for having fully revived the question of the final status of the Serbian province of Kosovo-Metohija, currently under U.N. administration and inhabited by an overwhelmingly successionist ethnic-Albanian population. Widely seen as a pre-election ploy to expand his base of political support, Djindjic had gone so far as to propose, correctly, in my view, granting independence to the Kosovo Albanians in exchange for the retention of extraterritorial sovereignty over Serbian holy places in Kosovo as well as over majority-Serb areas (which may have included mutually beneficial population transfers).
Djindjic had been a marked man, having narrowly escaped several attempts on his life, most recently on February 21, when a truck plowed into his motorcade on its way to Belgrade’s airport. Wednesday’s official government announcement drew a link between that attempt and the day’s murder. Djindjic’s statement back in February suggested that he suspected that those opposed to democratic reforms or those linked to organized crime were responsible for the attempt. But he was, and remained until the end, entirely unapologetic: “If someone thinks law and reforms can be stopped by eliminating me, then that is a huge delusion.”
STATE OF SERBIA
Serbia is now in a declared state of emergency. Read by the acting prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, the government’s statement on Wednesday held that “this criminal act is a clear attempt to put an end to the development and democratization of Serbia and plunge it into isolation once again and was carried out by those who have been trying over the past few years to do so through various murders and assassinations.” Serbia’s will is strong; she will mend her broken soul and her ailing body and find the savages who did this to her people-come what may.
Djindjic’s more popular rival, Vojislav Kostunica, the overthrower of Milosevic and a man of unrivalled integrity and moral authority, seemed on Wednesday to echo Djindjic’s earlier suspicions when he described his onetime ally’s assassination as “a brutal warning that the truth must be faced with open eyes.” The murder demonstrated that crime “is the natural enemy of all democratic institutions” and that “all of us-both those in power and those in the opposition-must reflect on and draw a strict line in the sand between that which is legal and that which is not. Here there is no room for compromise and dealmaking,” he concluded.
Radio Free Europe did not observe the custom not to speak ill of the dead. It described Djindjic as having a “Machiavellian view of power,” by which it meant that he did not “shy away from relying on extraordinarily loose interpretations of the Serbian Constitution and parliamentary rules of procedure to get his way politically, such as his repeated attempts last year to bar members of Kostunica’s [party] from parliament. He even went so far as to repeal their mandates and assign them to members of his party and its allies.” Djindjic also refused to endorse Kostunica in an election for president of Serbia when the only other candidate was the far-right Vojislav Seselj, who presently sits in a cell at the Hague, and failed to cleanse the electoral list of the dead, the emigrated and the invented while refusing to repeal a Milosevic-era law that required a fifty percent voter turnout rate. This last stunt had cost him many friends in Washington, who had begun to call him “Little Slobo” by the time I had returned from Belgrade in early January, as had his domestic opponents.
Among Djindjic’s many enemies, who ordered the hit? Five groups stand out (given the professionalism of the murder, we can discount the likelihood of a lone, disaffected gunman): 1) associates of Milosevic, led by his vengeful son Marko (whereabouts unknown); 2) pro-Mladic former paramilitaries; 3) Seselj’s ultranationalist goons; 4) extremist Albanians afraid Djindjic was going to succeed in finding a compromise solution to the problem of Kosovo’s final status; and 5) influential elements of Serbia’s underworld community. Of course, nothing is yet clear. But I suspect that one can rule out the pro-Mladic and the pro-Seselj possibilities, as well as any Albanian involvement. While all three groups had strong reasons to desire the death of Djindjic, there are compelling reasons to think them not responsible for this crime.
Mladic and the other two indicted war criminals in question are working to avoid detection and capture and can surmise that whatever deterrent factor murder may bring will be trumped by the justice and necessity of the pursuit and capture of those who gave the order (in this case, shame and duty trump fear). Seselj may very well have chosen to present himself before the Hague Tribunal instead of waiting for Djindjic to arrest him and reap the political benefit from doing so, but since he is already in a cage and stands little chance of returning to freedom any time soon, neither he nor his party stand to gain much political benefit from the death of Djindjic. Pure revenge or envy is a possibility, but this too is not Seselj’s style (although I do not rule it out entirely). Lastly, the
Albanians. Even a whiff of Albanian involvement would lead to an escalation of tensions in Kosovo and almost certainly insistence by Belgrade to reenter militarily Kosovo if the foreign authorities administering Kosovo could not immediately produce the suspects. All in all, assassination of Serbia’s prime minister is not in the national interest of Kosovo’s Albanians.
Remaining as plausible suspect groups are Serbia’s organized crime leadership and the increasingly bitter and desperate associates of Milosevic, which in some cases come out to the same thing. Rumors persisted throughout the post-Milosevic period that Marko Milosevic had orchestrated numerous attempts on Djindjic’s life. This in part explained Djindjic’s preoccupation with his personal security — he had gone so far as to accept the German government’s offer to modernize Serbia’s security agencies. Moreover, his government was making small but real inroads into the deeply rooted organized-crime networks, which caused pregnant consternation in the underworld. What remained unclear was whether some in his circle or the rule of law had filled the power vacuum left by the crackdowns. Either way, it seems most plausible that this assassination was the work of powerful organized crime elements.
Serbia’s new birth of freedom is here to stay, for thanks in part to Djindjic’s tactical genius, the scourge of Communism in Europe was finally eliminated. Whatever his faults, surely Djindjic’s name will be recorded with golden letters in the annals of history. Deservingly, then, do I cite at length the words of Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday:
Prime Minister Djindjic’s fearless leadership was instrumental in ending the terrible and despotic regime of Slobodan Milosevic and peacefully restoring democratic rule. I met with him many times and came to know him and admire his courage and wisdom. He promoted the economic and political reforms necessary for Serbia’s integration into Europe and spoke out against extremism in all forms. He courageously initiated a public campaign to combat organized crime, which threatens every institution in Serbian society. We are confident that Serbia’s political leaders will continue Prime Minister’s Djindjic’s vital work. The United States remains committed to helping Serbia undertake the economic and democratic reforms that will lead it toward a brighter and more prosperous future within Europe.
The evil men behind this cowardly act (and their sympathizers) have reminded all Serbs of the barbarous past that we shed so peacefully only a few years ago. We Serbs must not allow the murder of Zoran Djindjic to become a liberation from our future liberty. I pray that the men who ordered his assassination be found, that they be brought to justice, and that those in charge of the investigation understand the distinction between a vengeful act and a reckoning.
May we Serbs learn from this crime the political necessity of a principled yet disinterested interest in the liberty of our people. May the West learn that siding with the one most like you in parts of the world unlike yours more often than not leads to the mere appearance of stability, to the detriment of both.
— Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic, a fellow at the Center for South Eastern European Studies in Belgrade, is the assistant managing editor of The National Interest and a columnist for the Russian daily Izvestia.