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Western Press Review: Djindjic Assassination, Political Opposition In Central Asia, And Iraq

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 13 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several Western dailies today carry items on yesterday's assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was killed in a midday sniper attack in front of government offices in Belgrade. Djindjic was perhaps most widely known for his controversial decision to transfer former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague tribunal in April 2001 to face war-crimes charges. Several papers discuss Djindjic's accomplishments in the post-Milosevic era and speculate on what his assassination means for the future of a restive Serbia. We also take a look today at the difficulties faced by political opposition movements in Central Asia and the ongoing debate over the use of force to disarm Iraq.


A "Washington Post" editorial calls yesterday's assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic "shocking and terrible." It credits Djindjic and his reform-minded colleagues not only with dispatching former Serbian leader and war crimes suspect Slobodan Milosevic to face trial at The Hague, but also with stabilizing the economy and pursuing creative resolutions in relations with Montenegro and the UN-administered province of Kosovo.

Moreover, Djindjic had been stepping up pressure on organized crime groups who, "with their allies in the military and security forces, threaten Serbian democracy and Balkan stability." He recently "shook up the leadership of the secret police and went on television to declare an offensive against the trafficking in drugs and women that fuels the underground." But even more importantly, the paper says, Djindjic may have been coming close to arresting key suspected war criminals, including former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic.

Djindjic "knew he was risking his life," "The Washington Post" writes. But, it adds, "the veteran democracy campaigner had been taking risks for decades to fight the Communist rulers of the former Yugoslavia and the nationalist warlords who succeeded them." Although Djindjic "had his faults, lack of fortitude was not among them."

The "Post" says the question now is whether Serbia's politicians can "decisively face the network of nationalist criminals and gangsters" in their region. Unless they do, "Serbia's hard-won progress may be lost."


A leading editorial in the British "Times" calls the assassination of Zoran Djindjic "a terrible indictment of the way Serbia has been criminalized and corrupted" by the dictatorship of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Throughout the wars in Yugoslavia of the 1990s, Milosevic's "use of criminals and gangsters to ensure his control of the police and security apparatus so strengthened the links" between them that by the end of his reign in late 2000 they were "hard to separate." Djindjic's assassination yesterday once again "puts the focus on the malign connection between organized crime and politics in Serbia."

"The Times" says Serbia "is now paying the price for a culture that has been dominated for years by vendettas and repression, and for a ruined economy that has impoverished an entire nation and left many destitute and desperate."

Fears for Serbia's future are felt not only in Belgrade, says the paper, but in neighboring capitals and the Western world. All are now "bracing themselves for prolonged uncertainty, a bitter power struggle and the possible outbreak of street violence as rival factions seek to assert their influence."

Serbia "now faces great danger," "The Times" warns. It must "look itself in the eye" and confront the "legacy that has corrupted its body politic and threatens violence without end."


The Djindjic assassination prompted commentary in all the leading German and Swiss papers as well. Notably, Peter Muench in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" describes the Serbian prime minister as a "powerful, courageous man with many enemies," who strove to lead his "decaying country to a better future."

Muench says the assassination was also a blow to "a state with a murky past," which Djindjic, "as a brilliant politician, strove to establish as a new Serbia."

Djindjic set many plans in motion but was unable to accomplish very much, says Muench. His ambitions were cut short and his death is a cruel awakening from a dream that promised to make Serbia's turmoil a thing of the past. The world now faces a dangerous situation -- as dangerous for Europe as for the Serbs. Muench writes, "The death of Zoran Djindjic is a catastrophe."


The daily "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" says the murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic is a heavy blow to the reform movement in Serbia. It was Djindjic who, in the last two years, propelled the transformation process forward despite much opposition.

The Swiss commentary says this assassination is a reflection of the "links between the underworld and politicians -- the irreversible interwoven mesh of politicians, the economy, people benefiting from war and organized criminals."

Djindjic steadily labored against the odds to solve these problems and to strengthen his position, albeit at the expense of some political institutions, which were weakened by his rule. The paper expresses the fear that there will now be a political vacuum in Serbia, and that its protracted reform process will probably come to a standstill. Currently, the new federation of Serbia and Montenegro has nobody at the head of its government though it recently elected a president. The paper says it will be difficult to find someone of Djindjic's stature to succeed him.


A report by "Jane's Intelligence Digest" discusses some of Zoran Djindjic's endeavors and what the options may be for Serbia following his assassination yesterday. "Jane's" says as Serbian prime minister, Djindjic "proved willing to push through an agenda that made him the leading hate figure for Serbia's sizeable -- and powerful -- nationalist constituency." In the "often-violent world of Serbian politics, this probably sealed his death warrant."

Djindjic supported investigations into mass gravesites in Serbia and the suspected murder of ethnic Albanians. "Jane's" says, "Collecting such evidence amid the popular state of denial that atrocities had indeed been committed in Kosovo was always going to be controversial." Additionally, Djindjic's attempt to dismantle the "parallel" black-market economy, much of which has alleged links to organized crime groups, "put the prime minister on a direct collision course with some of the most ruthless elements in Serbian society."

"Jane's" says now, the "key question is to what extent Serbia's fragile democracy can survive" Djindjic's murder. The current Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) government "has few potential successors," says the report, but it adds that reform-minded economist and Yugoslav Deputy Premier Miroljub Labus might be one candidate. "Jane's" says other than Labus, former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica "is probably the only Serbian politician capable of winning sufficient popular support to keep Serbia from descending into political chaos."


An analysis in "Eurasia View" says opposition movements in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan are failing, as their governments seek to eradicate domestic criticism. But the paper says in all three cases, "a lack of cooperation among various opposition movements has hampered their ability to counter the crackdowns."

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has succeeded in "smashing" his opposition with a massive security sweep sparked by a failed assassination attempt last November. In Kazakhstan, the prosecution of journalist Sergei Duvanov on what some believe to be trumped-up rape charges "indicates that Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev remains unwilling to seek accommodation with his political opponents, and instead intends to pursue a confrontational course." Two leaders of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) opposition movement, Mukhtar Ablyazov and Galimzhan Zhakiyanov, have also been imprisoned.

Things are not quite as bad in Kyrgyzstan, where critics of President Askar Akaev's administration "remain vocal in expressing dissent." But, the paper says, Akaev "is taking advantage of a growing rift between the radical and more moderate branches of the opposition." The main issue dividing them is "whether some sort accommodation can be reached with Akayev, or whether he must go."

The "Eurasia View" cites observers as saying these opposition movements "could mount more effective resistance if they coordinated [their] activities" and goals.


A "Financial Times' contribution by Mark Medish, formerly of the U.S. National Security Council, says the assassination of Zoran Djindjic is "a sobering reminder that the work of postwar reconstruction is a long, often dangerous process."

As a U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" prepares for a possible war in Iraq, Medish says "Western leaders would do well to remember unfinished business related to their earlier military intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s." Indeed, he says, the Balkan experience "holds important lessons for a post-Saddam [Hussein] Middle East. Winning the peace requires as much commitment and purpose as winning the war."

Medish says lasting stability in Southeast Europe "is within reach, although it will require lasting attention and assistance from the U.S. and Europe."

He says the "parallel processes of European Union and NATO enlargement have created a positive sense of convergence between East and West in those countries set to join in the next few years." However, other potential members fear they are being left behind. "These countries, at risk of marginalization and thus destabilization, include Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and, to a lesser degree, Romania and Bulgaria, which have at least joined NATO."

Medish says the West must continue to provide financial support, investment, and technical assistance to the Balkans. Moreover, it should hold out the real prospect of membership in the EU and NATO in exchange for "essential" political and economic reforms.


In a column reprinted in the "International Herald Tribune," "New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman says the "unprecedented" war in Iraq that the United States may soon wage is a legitimate "war of choice," but one that will leave the U.S. administration confronting a fractious "Arab Yugoslavia" in Iraq. "Transforming Iraq into a state with an accountable, consensual and decent government" must be conducted through an "unrushed process that is viewed as legitimate in Iraq," he says.

Friedman goes on to say his "main criticism" of U.S. President George W. Bush is that Bush "has failed to acknowledge how unusual this war is -- for both Americans and the world -- and therefore hasn't offered the bold policies that have to go with it." Instead, the American president "has hyped the threat and asserted that this is a war of no choice, then combined it all with his worst pre-September 11 business as usual: budget-busting tax cuts, indifference to global environmental concerns, a gas-guzzling energy policy, neglect of the Arab-Israeli peace process and bullying diplomacy."

Friedman says "a divisive, unilateral war in Iraq" could "explode" whatever solidarity -- both within the U.S. and internationally -- is left from the days following the 11 September attacks.


In France's daily "Liberation," Patrick Sabatier says the United Nations seems to be plagued by rumors, disinformation, and ongoing negotiations over whether Baghdad should be given the 45 days to disarm before war is declared, as proposed by six members of the Security Council, the 21 days proposed by Canada, or the no more than seven days wanted by Britain. France, for its part, refuses to set a firm timetable.

He says even if the Washington- and London-backed resolution fails to win the support of a nine-member majority in the Security Council, both capitals have made clear they will go to war, marginalizing the UN in the process. Both Washington and London now view the UN as an "impotent" organization, says Sabatier.

But must the UN be condemned to a fatal loss of credibility or be made the repository of U.S. hegemony, Sabatier asks. Or is this merely a temporary loss of credibility because the United States itself will need the UN in the future? He says in order to protect its chances of one day becoming the supreme authority for international cooperation on peace and security issues, UN members must now find the courage to say "no," and refuse pressure more forcefully.

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)