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Serbs’ Premier Is Assassinated; Led In Reforms

As published in The New York Times

By Daniel Simpson

BELGRADE, Serbia, March 12 – A sniper today shot and killed the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, a reformer who helped overthrow Slobodan Milosevic and send him to face trial on charges of orchestrating genocide in the Balkans.

Within hours, Serbian government officials said they believed the killing was carried out by a notorious Belgrade underworld group accused of dozens of other murders and kidnappings. The leader of that group is a former special police commander, Milorad Lukovic, whose support helped Mr. Djindjic oust Mr. Milosevic in October 2000.

Officials said Mr. Djindjic had been killed because he had been preparing to arrest Mr. Lukovic and his associates, some of whom are suspected of committing war crimes.

The intense pressure on Mr. Djindjic by Western governments to arrest war crimes suspects, particularly Gen. Ratko Mladic, had forced him to confront holdovers from the Milosevic era, officials said. Mr. Lukovic had been a backer of the ousted president before switching sides.

The killing of Mr. Djindjic, 50, who was shot in the parking lot outside his office and had many political enemies, carried echoes in its portent for the Balkans of the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Today’s death leaves Serbia, a struggling country at the center of a conflict-ridden region ravaged by a decade of war, with neither a prime minister nor an elected president.

“The assassination portends a dark period for Serbia and the region,” said Brenda Pearson, a specialist on Balkan affairs at the Washington-based Public International Law and Policy Group. “This period will see a resurgence of nationalism that was never repudiated by much of the Serbian establishment and continues to be allied with the underworld.”

The assassination was the first of a European prime minister since the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, was shot walking home from a movie in 1986.

Mr. Djindjic was shot on the very day that his cabinet was to sign warrants for the arrests of Mr. Lukovic, who is known throughout Belgrade by his nickname, Legija, and other leaders of the gang that is believed to be behind today’s assassination and other recent killings, according to a statement issued by the Serbian government. That statement listed 20 members of the self-styled “Zemun clan,” named after a Belgrade suburb. Among those named was a man arrested two weeks ago after he tried to drive a truck into Mr. Djindjic’s motorcade on the highway to the Belgrade airport. Despite this recent attempt on his life, the prime minister was not wearing body armor when he was shot in the chest today as he got out of his car, moving slowly because of a soccer injury.

The police said his assailant used such high-caliber bullets that they would probably have penetrated his chest through a flak jacket.

Television film of the ambush showed Mr. Djindjic’s bodyguards bundling his crumpled body into a black Audi sedan that sped off to hospital. Surgeons kept him alive to operate on him for 40 minutes, but he was dead on arrival.

Although his fractious coalition now only retains power thanks to support from Mr. Milosevic’s old party in Parliament, Mr. Djindjic had been a favored leader of Western officials since he was in the political opposition. None of the politicians likely to succeed him has the same backing from international officials, or a comparable track record on extraditing people accused of war crimes to the United Nations tribunal in The Hague.

Jailed after protesting against Marshal Tito’s Communist in the 1970′s, Mr. Djindjic then spent a decade in Germany, gaining a philosophy doctorate before returning to Serbia to campaign against Mr. Milosevic. Sonja Biserko of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, one of many longtime democracy advocates grieving tonight for Mr. Djindjic, described him as “a young, modern and dynamic politician, who had been doing his utmost to take out the former regime’s mortgage on this country.”

Tributes to Mr. Djindjic poured in from abroad, where officials also praised his efforts to revive an economy battered by conflict and sanctions. But in Serbia, where few people yet see the benefits of such reforms, the reaction was more muted.

A small crowd of several dozen mourners gathered outside the government building where he was shot, clutching candles and red roses. Some were in tears. But elsewhere in the city, life went on much as normal and other people were almost indifferent after a decade of war and the assassination of many other senior officials. Most of those killings are unsolved, but the murky circle of businessmen and criminals who gained sway in Serbia in the 13 years Mr. Milosevic ruled before he was ousted on Oct. 5, 2000 are widely blamed.

“Sure it’s a tragedy, but he’s not the only one,” said a woman who gave her name only as Branka. “People are dying all the time here and no one seems to do much about it.”

In response to the assassination, the government immediately declared a state of emergency, handing the army powers to search and detain people without a warrant, and appointed the deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, as Mr. Djindjic’s temporary replacement.

Like the acting president, Natasa Micic, who took over last year after low voter turnout invalidated two successive presidential elections, he has no popular mandate and represents a fringe party. Moreover, any attempt to form a government of national unity is likely to be undermined by politicians scrambling to fill the vacuum left by Mr. Djindjic, who effectively centralized power around himself.

“The main consequence of all of this will probably be elections, but it’s difficult to see any decisive leadership emerging,” said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst. “In any case, whoever is in power still has to deal with the mess this country’s now in and the relentless pressure to hand over suspected war criminals.”

In a conversation less than an hour before Mr. Djindjic’s death, the American ambassador at large for war crimes issue, Pierre-Richard Prosper, who was visiting the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, said that in Belgrade “the political climate is turning in favor” of the arrest of General Mladic. The general was indicted for genocide in connection with the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo, and the massacre of an estimated 7,500 Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995.

The pressure to hand suspects over to the tribunal had forced Mr. Djindjic into a corner. Under stern orders from a variety of Western countries and institutions to extradite General Mladic by June 15, the prime minister had been trying to buy time by first cracking down on underworld criminals, some of whom are suspected of committing war crimes. Chief among these is Mr. Lukovic, who deserted the French Foreign Legion in the early 1990′s and returned to the Balkans, becoming a senior officer in the most feared Serbian police unit under Mr. Milosevic. He later switched his loyalties to Mr. Djindjic when street protests forced the former Yugoslavian president from office.

“Many owe their lives to Legija, including me,” Mr. Djindjic said after a peaceful transfer of power that could not have happened without the support of such senior figures in the security establishment.

Several commentators had warned in recent weeks of the risks inherent in Mr. Djindjic’s efforts to distance himself from Legija and satisfy Western demands that more be done to arrest organized criminals as well as those responsible for wartime atrocities.

“The thing is that the foreigners are not asking the Serbian premier only to deliver some people to The Hague tribunal,” declared an editorial in this week’s edition of the magazine Blic News. “They are in fact demanding a playoff between Mr. Djindjic and Milosevic-era holdovers in the state security services. The services, the magazine said, had found a new leader in Mr. Djindjic, but ”carried too much baggage from the past to follow him where he was going.” The government said it would not relent in the fight against Mr. Lukovic and his associates, as well as others who would rather ensure that Serbia remains a gangster’s paradise. But many analysts believe it has few chances of succeeding where the most outspoken advocate of reform failed.

Despite the prevailing pessimism, some observers in Belgrade contended that the murder of Mr. Djindjic could unify the quarreling advocates of reform.

“It’s crunch time,” said Dejan Medic, a 37-year-old graphic designer. “Either people are going to get serious and take on the criminals trying to undermine our country or we’re doomed.”

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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