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Balkans: Djindjic Killing A Setback For Stability, Democratization

  • Eugen Tomiuc

The assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic has sent shock waves throughout the Balkan region and the rest of Europe. RFE/RL looks at the possible implications of the killing for regional stability.

Prague, 13 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders in the Balkans and beyond have expressed concern that yesterday's assassination of reformist Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic may set the stage for greater instability in a region still recovering from the conflicts of the 1990s.

European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana was one of the first international officials to urge Serbia and Montenegro to stay on the path to reform and European integration. Solana also reassured the two republics of the EU's support. "I would like to say also to the leaders of Serbia and the leaders of Serbia and Montenegro that they have to continue moving forward economically, socially, closer to Europe. In Europe, they have a place, and they can be sure that they will be helped by me [and] also by the institutions that the European Union represents," Solana said.

Croatian President Stipe Mesic, whose country was directly involved in the conflicts of the early 1990s between the former Yugoslav republics, expressed fears that the loss of a reformist politician like Djindjic may have a negative impact not only on Serbia but its neighbors as well. "What happened in Belgrade is certainly not good, either for the growth of democracy in Serbia or for those of us neighboring Serbia," Mesic said.

In a clear sign of unease, several countries bordering Serbia and Montenegro stepped up border and internal security measures. Among them is another former Yugoslav republic, Macedonia, where police patrols and security measures for top officials have been beefed up as a precaution. Bulgaria has also increased checkups at its borders.

Analysts say the assassination of Djindjic, known as a pragmatic, pro-Western politician, will impact the region in several ways, most notably concerning the situations in Kosovo and Bosnia, as well as bilateral relations between Serbia and Montenegro, currently in the process of building a loose state community.

Balkans analyst Laza Kekic of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit said Djindjic and his Montenegrin counterpart Milo Djukanovic had established a good working relationship. Now, he said, neither closer integration nor moves toward Montenegrin independence are likely to take place any time soon. "I don't think there will be any abrupt moves in either direction -- either in the direction of a [closer] harmonization of economic policies [and] all these things that are still on the agenda [or toward independence]," Kekic said.

Kekic also said he did not think this would spark renewed ambitions among independence-minded Montenegrin parties to bypass the existing agreement. "I think the pressure of the outside world will come to play there," he said.

In Kosovo, political leaders condemned the killing and said they feared it could spark renewed instability in their region and in the rest of the Balkans.

Kosovo has been under United Nations administration since 1999, after a NATO air war that put an end to the Serbs' crackdown on ethnic Albanians.

NATO and UN officials said on 13 March they have stepped up security throughout Kosovo and at the region's boundaries with the rest of Serbia.

Nexhat Daci, head of the province's parliament, said today that the assassination will damage democratic processes in the entire region, particularly with regard to Serbia's immediate neighbors.

Kosovar Albanian politician Hashim Thaci, who as a former rebel leader fought Serbian forces during the 1998-1999 Kosovo war, described the killing as an "assassination of people carrying out reforms...with a vision for the future of the region."

Michael Steiner, Kosovo's top UN official, also condemned the killing of Djindjic, saying he held the prime minister "in high esteem."

Djindjic had recently called for an international conference to be held on Kosovo's status, saying the province was heading toward independence.

Serbs living in Kosovo want the area to remain part of Serbia and Montenegro, while Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority wants independence.

Analyst Daniel Gros, director of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), told RFE/RL that without Djindjic, there is a risk of a hardening Serbian position on Kosovo.

He said Djindjic's death "is indeed a serious loss for the region, because Djindjic had been one of those who had a more enlightened view of the Serb interests, and there is reason to fear that from now on, the official Serbian position on Kosovo will become less constructive, making it much [less] possible to achieve a settlement for the region."

Furthermore, Kekic believes the killing will lead to a temporary freeze in discussion of the Kosovo issue.

Analysts also express concern that it may hamper efforts to bring Serbian war crimes suspects before the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Chief UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte yesterday admitted that the death of Djindjic, who was instrumental in bringing former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague, could deal a blow to the tribunal's efforts.

Kekic said the assassination may be a temporary setback for efforts to catch other top war criminals like Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic. "If anything, that issue [of war criminals] might sort of recede a bit from the agenda," he said. "I would think that given the fragility of the situation of the moment, probably the international efforts on this front might actually weaken a bit, but that's in the short term. In the longer term, I suppose, it will be business as usual," Kekic said.

Analysts say the grave impact of the assassination goes beyond Serbia's immediate neighbors in reconfirming the Balkans' notoriety as a crime-ridden region.

In 1996, Andrei Lukanov, a former Bulgarian prime minister, was also assassinated. And last week, Bulgaria's wealthiest businessman, Iliya Pavlov, was killed by unknown assassins.

Gros said such killings are a setback for the entire region's efforts toward European integration. "It certainly is a bad sign in the sense that it reinforces the public impression about the Balkans as a crime-ridden place. There have also recently been important killings in Bulgaria, so it would certainly be a setback for the entire region in its attempt to get closer to the EU," Gros said.

Kekic agreed that the slaying of Zoran Djindjic sends a bad signal to much of the world, particularly to the potential foreign investors that are so greatly needed in one of Europe's poorest regions.

Furthermore, Kekic said, the killing underlines the continued interdependence among the volatile Balkan countries, because it affects the overall image of the entire region.