Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's Assassination

Bloody Instructions

Former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's funeral procession. Djindjic was assassinated on March 12, 2003 (Photo: AFP).

If slain Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic had lived to see his country in the first weeks after his assassination, he might have felt a sense of vindication. He would have seen that the main organized crimes rings were breaking up, their bosses were behind bars, and some major crimes committed during the era of former President Slobodan Milosevic—including political murders—were on their way to being solved. He would also have seen that Serbia had been admitted into the Council of Europe, receiving strong support from the European Union and the United States, and that significant financial foreign aid was expected as a result. For a long time, Djindjic had dreamed about these things and worked to turn the dream into reality. Ironically, his assassination provided the needed impetus for reform, and Serbia is now on its way to becoming what Djindjic wanted: a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous society that is at last taking serious measures to crack down on organized crime.

In his March 27 column for the independent weekly Vreme, Stojan Cerovic remarked that Djindjic's opponents must be wondering if he had planned his own death. "Troubles and obstacles he failed to overcome during his lifetime are now decreasing, removed as if death did not take anything away—on the contrary, it gave an enormous strength and an absolute conviction to everything he had talked about and wanted to achieve."

In what appeared to be the most extensive police operation ever to be conducted in Serbia, some 2,000 people were arrested in the two weeks following Djindjic’s assassination. Not only did police identify a short list of people suspected of having carried out the assassination, they also used the state of emergency declared right after the murder to hunt for members of 13 gangs dealing in narcotics, weapons, and human trafficking. The crackdown on organized crime also led police to top officials in the judiciary, such as Deputy Public Attorney Milan Sarajlic and Belgrade District Court Justice Zivota Djoincevic. Both are suspected of having been on the payroll of the Zemun gang, which government prosecutors blame for killing the prime minister.

Others arrested included policemen and intelligence officers, among them the leadership of the Special Operations Unit (JSO), an elite armed police force. The unit's deputy commander, Zvezdan Jovanovic, was accused of shooting Djindjic, while JSO commander Dusan Maricic and another member, Sasa Pejakovic, were detained as accomplices. Still at large is former JSO commander Milorad Lukovic, known as Legija (Legionnaire), who is thought to be the mastermind behind the assassination. His two closest allies and alleged leaders of the Zemun gang, Dusan Spasojevic and Milan Lukovic, were killed by police, reportedly after resisting arrest. Others who have been detained include Milosevic’s chief of secret police, Jovica Stanisic, and the founder of the JSO, Franko Simatovic Frenki. Maybe the most surprising arrest was that of Svetlana Ceca Raznatovic, the most popular folk star in Serbia and also the widow of notorious warlord Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan. Police reports said that a large number of weapons were seized in Ceca's house, including bazookas, hand grenades, ammunition, and a crossbow.

The arrests of former and current leaders of the JSO—until recently considered Serbian war heroes—resulted in a government decision to disband the unit. "We believe that the disbanding of JSO is one of the best decisions that will help us to finally separate crime from patriotism, leaving police and courts to do their jobs and go back to normal life," Ljubodrag Stojadinovic wrote in the pro-government daily Politika (March 27).

The notorious JSO, also known as the Red Berets, made its name during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo in the 1990s. Its leaders and members are accused of having committed the most brutal war crimes throughout the former Yugoslavia—if not under direct orders from Milosevic, then at least with his approval. In addition, the first results of the investigation show that the unit was responsible for political murders in Serbia itself in the late 1990s. Police have found remains of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, who disappeared in August 2000. He was considered a possible opponent to Milosevic in the presidential elections in September 2000. Police claim that four JSO members kidnapped and killed Stambolic, and that the motive was clearly political. The trail leads to Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic. Police said that Milosevic, currently on trial for war crimes before the U.N. war crimes court in the Hague, would be questioned in his cell, and his wife would be questioned as soon as she is found.

Before all these discoveries, only a few days after the assassination, Djindjic's long-time ally Vesna Pesic, former leader of the Civic Alliance and now Serbia’s ambassador to Mexico, pointed to the murderers in an article in the independent daily Danas (March 15): "This 'organized crime' is an organized part of Milosevic's police and army. The killers have senior ranks of colonels and generals, and they got them because they killed."

But while his opponents were definitely unsavory, Djindjic himself was not a saint. In fall 2000, as the mastermind of an opposition movement determined to oust Milosevic, he made some shady deals. One of these was with Legija and his Red Berets, whose refusal to obey Milosevic's orders during the popular unrest in Belgrade on Oct. 5, 2000, was considered the final blow to Milosevic's grip on the country. The Red Berets even helped secure Milosevic's arrest in March 2001. In return, Legija and the unit were never prosecuted for crimes they are alleged to have committed during Milosevic's era and after. In Djindjic's last months, under increasing international pressure to clean up organized crime, he was preparing to strike the Red Berets. His allies say this is probably why he was assassinated.

For its fight with organized crime, "police and authorities have received the kind of support from citizens that they could not have dreamed about only several weeks ago," Batic Bacevic wrote in the independent weekly NIN (March 27). The weekly urged the authorities and its allies to "use this tragic occasion to remove this cancer from the state institutions, from top police officials to prosecutors,” and in its March 26 editorial, Politika warned that "only when members of the Serbian mafia are legally convicted will the country be able to rid itself of the tragic legacy of the 1990s, when all values were confused."

On March 16, Djindjic's close ally Zoran Zivkovic was elected to succeed him as prime minister. Zivkovic did not make any changes in the government, vowing to continue the reforms launched by the late premier with the same energy and decisiveness. But even he has admitted that "nobody can replace Zoran Djindjic." Few would disagree with this assessment, even though it only became clear after the former prime minister’s death.

A day earlier, hundreds of thousands of people had marched, many in tears, in Djindjic's solemn funeral procession. Danas' front-page story on the funeral bore the headline, "Farewell to the Serbian Kennedy." Often unpopular during life, Djindjic attracted many supporters after his assassination.

"Some people have the misfortune that their real role and greatness in a society can be seen only after their death. Zoran Djindjic was that kind of man," the liberal business biweekly Ekonomist explained in a March 17 editorial. "Now, when he is gone, it is clear that the personality of Djindjic has had an enormous impact on reforms in Serbia. He was the engine and the symbol of change. That's why they shot him," the magazine said.

Whatever other legacies Djindjic left, there can be no doubt that his death has united Serbs, and that the country is in a position to use its new-found strength to move itself forward and integrate into Europe. Those who ordered and carried out the execution of the prime minister wanted to achieve just the opposite. But if the reforms set into motion by Djindjic’s death last, it would seem that they have failed.