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Serbia: Prime Minister Djindjic Assassinated

Prague, 12 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was shot and killed shortly after midday today in front of the Serbian government building in Belgrade.

A gunman is believed to have fired two shots at Djindjic from a high-powered rifle. Djindjic suffered serious wounds to the chest and stomach and was rushed to a nearby hospital. He was initially pronounced in very serious condition and then in critical condition before word eventually leaked out from hospital staff, police, and officials from his Democratic Party that the 50-year-old prime minister had died.

The government declared a state of emergency in Serbia shortly after going into emergency session after Djindjic's death was announced.

Witnesses say two people were arrested after the attack. Police checkpoints have been set up around Belgrade. The capital's television stations suspended normal programming.

Djindjic was a reformer and had headed Serbia's first non-Communist government since January 2001.

He escaped an apparent assassination attempt last month when a van cut in front of his motorcade near Belgrade. Djindjic suggested the attempt could have been linked to efforts by his government to stamp out organized crime.

Djindjic spoke fluent English and German, having studied in West Germany. In the late 1990s, Djindjic became a key leader of the opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He was harshly criticized by Serbian nationalists for his role in handing Milosevic over to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Addressing an opposition rally in Belgrade in April 2000 -- six months before Milosevic was toppled from office -- Djindjic said: "All of concerned Serbia is watching this square and asking themselves whether we are decisive and unified enough to conduct the necessary reforms. And we answer them: 'Join us, you millions who have been humiliated and plundered, and then we will be sufficiently unified and decisive.'"

In December 2000, 2 1/2 months after Milosevic was forced out, Serbian parliamentary elections catapulted Djindjic to power. Djindjic told his supporters, "We understand very well that this is not a mandate to rule over Serbia but a mandate for change in Serbia."

Last August, Djindjic visited RFE/RL in Prague and described the political situation in his country as he saw it. He spoke in favor of resolving difficulties head on, rather than entering a state of denial. "It's about whether we look at the problems with our eyes wide open and resolve them, even if they are unpleasant, [instead of choosing to] run away from them, stick our heads in the sand and deny they exist," Djindjic said.

Last year, he was still opposing opening talks on the issue of the future status of Kosovo. In January, however, he showed a change of heart. "Our strategy is that, as a first step, we undertake a conceptual change of administering Kosovo, as well as other steps. The question is whether to start now or wait until standards are being realized, that is, [until] life is returning to normal [and] certain relations are functioning. In the past two years, we've tended to wait, and the majority view has been that now is not the right time to raise the question," Djindjic said.

Then, last month, Djindjic went further and called for opening talks on Kosovo's future status without delay, a move his critics perceived as a preelection ploy to attract nationalist votes in parliamentary elections later this year.

Early last month, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was replaced with a looser union, Serbia and Montenegro, effectively removing from power Djindjic's chief political rival, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. Far more in favor of market reforms than the cautious constitutionalist Kostunica, Djindjic was elated. "The results will be visible very soon," he said. "First of all, in the formation of a common market, a genuine union in which citizens in both Serbia and Montenegro will have the same rights. They will fall under the same laws. They will have the same protections."

Djindjic was not unique within the Serbian government for his multilingual abilities or for his international contacts. His colleagues will be able to fill his shoes in that sense. What made Djindjic unique, however, was a certain Machiavellian view of power.

Djindjic did not shy away from relying on extraordinarily loose interpretations of the Serbian Constitution and parliamentary rules of procedure to get his way politically, such as his repeated attempts last year to bar members of Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia from parliament after they repeatedly boycotted parliamentary sessions. He even went so far as to repeal their mandates and assign them to members of his party and its allies.

Yet Djindjic was among the few Serbian politicians to concede that Serbian society and its ongoing identity crisis was at the root of instability in the Balkans. He told RFE/RL during his visit to Prague last August that, although many Serbs are still torn between building an open society and adhering to the traditionally closed society that he said "is marked by negative attitudes and suspicion," Serbs are now "close to finding their identity."

Djindjic believed a resolution to this dilemma was in sight. His violent death in Belgrade today suggests a resolution may be further off than ever.

Djindjic was born in Bosanski Samac, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the son of a Yugoslav People's Army officer. He was married and has two children.

View video footage of Djindjic's visit to RFE/RL in August 2002: Djindjic At RFE/RL