The assassination of Serbia’s prime minister is a declaration of war against the forces of law, order and democracy in Yugoslavia. Police have blamed organized crime for the killing and begun a crackdown, but the entire picture is a bit murkier. The slaying is a reminder of the unfinished business in Yugoslavia, and proof that much more has to be done before that troubled country will be rid of the influence of former leader Slobodan Milosevic and the murderous cabal that supported him.
Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was killed by two sniper bullets in Belgrade as he stepped out of his armored car last week. It was not the first attack on Mr. Djindjic: Last month, he escaped injury when a truck swerved toward his motorcade. He called the accident an assassination attempt, but was thought to be exaggerating. Sadly, he was not. Police have accused organized crime of being behind the killing and immediately began arresting suspects. More than 70 criminals have been nabbed in the crackdown.
Criminal organizations are the most obvious culprits. The government has declared war against the organized crime and corruption that flourished under the previous regime, headed by Mr. Milosevic. On the day of the shooting, the government planned to issue arrest warrants for several top underworld figures, including Mr. Milorad Lukovic, a former paramilitary leader who is accused of trafficking in heroin. Mr. Lukovic last month publicly threatened Mr. Djindjic and his government, declaring in an open letter to the media that the government was “dangerously unpatriotic” and warned the prime minister that his days were numbered.
The police are focusing on an underworld group called the Zemun Clan, reported to consist of some 200 people. Among those arrested were Mr. Jovica Stanisic and Mr. Franko Simatovic, the former head of the Serbian secret service and his deputy. The two men headed a paramilitary force that was responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia during the brutal civil war a decade ago. Mr. Lukovic is alleged to have taken over when Mr. Simatovic was forced from office a few years ago.
The links between organized crime and the old government are murky. In Mr. Milosevic’s war-crimes trial, the prosecution has argued that the former Yugoslav president leader was Mr. Lukovic’s boss, and has shown photographs that purport to document that claim. Paramilitary units were drafted into the Yugoslav security services after the war. Many Yugoslavs believe that their former leader still has considerable influence in the country, acting through the criminal gangs, even though Mr. Milosevic is currently in jail in The Hague.
There are rumors that some of the ties survived the change of regime. The criminals are alleged to have joined up with nationalists offering loyalty for protection. There is speculation that the murder could have been triggered by fears that more former high-ranking officials were going to be sent to The Hague tribunal for war crimes trials.
Even more disturbing are charges that Mr. Djindjic struck his own deal with Mr. Lukovic when the prime minister launched his drive to topple Mr. Milosevic. Mr. Djindjic has admitted to trying to win the mobsters over; in fact, Mr. Lukovic did not intervene against democracy demonstrators despite orders from Mr. Milosevic. The subsequent crackdown against organized crime was considered a betrayal by the mob and resulted in the death sentence that was carried out last week.
The killing comes at a time of political instability in Serbia and Montenegro, the two remaining states of what was once Yugoslavia. Mr. Djindjic’s death leaves the country without a prime minister or a president as Serbia has failed twice to elect a president because voter turnout did not reach the 50 percent required by Serbian law. There is every indication that the government will select another prime minister committed to continuing the process of democratization and liberalization that Mr. Djindjic began.
That commitment must be matched by renewed effort in the rest of the world. Since the end of the conflict in Kosovo, the international community has turned its attention elsewhere, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq as part of the war on terrorism. There is much that remains to be done in the Balkans, however. Continuing aid and assistance, both for the reform process as well as capacity building, is critical. Assuring the Yugoslav public that they have not been forgotten, and that their hardships were not suffered in vain, is essential to maintaining popular support for reform. That responsibility should fall mainly on Europeans, but the rest of the world has a role to play as well.
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