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Serbia: Profile Of A Media 'Oligarch'

Perhaps the closest Serbian equivalent of the Russian oligarchs is Bogoljub Karic, 50, whose media holdings center on the popular BK Television channel and the Mobtel mobile-telephone company. The latter is Serbia's largest, and his share in it alone is believed to be worth 500 million euros ($663 million).

Karic's family comes from Peja in Kosova, where it ran a small manufacturing enterprise and engaged in numerous other activities, including performing as professional musicians. The Karices were one of several talented and ambitious Serbian families from Kosova who made contact with Slobodan Milosevic at the start of his political career in the mid-1980s and developed business empires as part of his extended entourage during the freewheeling years of his reign.

Karic at one point used his international business contacts to persuade Chinese and Russian publishers to put out translations of books by Mira Markovic, Milosevic's wife. Karic served briefly as a member of the Serbian cabinet in the 1990s, but attempts to link him to some of the regime's war crimes have not been proven.

Karic is still going strong four years after Milosevic's ouster in October 2000. The businessman financially supports numerous conservative or nationalist causes but is believed to be primarily motivated by a desire to create the best climate for his extensive business interests, rather than by any specific ideology. He also sponsors the private BK University and the Karic Foundation.
Perhaps the closest Serbian equivalent of the Russian oligarchs is Bogoljub Karic, 50, whose media holdings center on the popular BK Television channel the Mobtel mobile-telephone company.

After the 30 December 2003 Serbian parliamentary elections, Karic's name increasingly appeared in the media in a distinctly political context. An RFE/RL correspondent reported from Belgrade on 19 January that among those seen at the offices of Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia during the coalition talks was Karic. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on 24 December that Karic was among those well-heeled individuals who allegedly bought influence in the previous Serbian legislature, which ultimately led to the downfall of the last government as party discipline collapsed because individual legislators had been "bought."

Karic entered politics in his own right later in 2004, when he made an impressive third place showing in the 13 June first round of the Serbian presidential race. He won 18 percent of the vote, even though he himself had expected to do no better than 5 or 6 percent. Karic's newly founded Snaga Srbije movement -- a name by analogy with Forza Italia -- is not itself represented in the parliament yet, but it is an open secret that many legislators from other parties are still under Karic's influence.

Many Serbs say that Karic's main purpose in actively entering politics was not just to consolidate his already considerable influence but to better conduct his feud with Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic of the G-17 Plus political party. Dinkic wants Karic's BK Group to pay 35 million euros in an "extra-profit tax" on profits made during Milosevic's tenure from the late 1980s until October 2000.

This past summer, Dinkic accused Karic of using BK Television to foment strikes and spread discontent with the government. Shortly before, during the campaign for the June election, BK Television helped promote Karic's campaign but was not hysterically partisan. Instead, BK Television relied on subtle editing of news items, sound bites, and video clips to present the boss in a favorable light and cast doubt on the seriousness of his rivals.

Karic probably went into politics to protect and promote his business interests rather than to leave a legacy of public service. But he apparently intends to be a political force to be reckoned with. Might Serbia -- which has seen several parties rise and fall over the past decade and a half -- now be heading for a two-party system centered on reformist and hard-line camps, with Karic's party occupying some sort of kingmaker role? Many think that the results of the June presidential elections point in that direction.

Karic certainly has the money and resources to set up a nationwide party organization for Snaga Srbije if he wants to. But several other examples from postcommunist Europe of wealthy businessmen going into politics suggest that he will find it necessary to make good quickly on his promises to raise the standard of living or be deserted by a disenchanted electorate.

[Originally published on 10 December 2004.]

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