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Serbia: Djindjic's Assassination Indicative Of Organized Crime's Strength

Serbia says it has arrested several members of an organized criminal group suspected of being behind yesterday's assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. As RFE/RL reports, the arrests come as the government has instituted a state of emergency and declared war on organized crime.

Prague, 13 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac says police have arrested a few of the more than 200 members of an organized criminal group suspected of being behind yesterday's assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djinjdic. "The police have caught a number of people overnight and are rounding up others in an ongoing action. Most of the people on the list have been in hiding for several days, which, if you think the way the police do, is an admission of guilt when someone goes into hiding several days before an assassination. So the police are working on this intensively," Korac said.

Korac said those behind the killing have "a clear political plan" to destabilize the state, foment political conflicts, stymie the work of the government and the parliament, and induce new elections, which they hope would return their forces to power. The Serbian government last night announced arrest warrants for what it called "the greatest organized crime group in the region of the former Yugoslavia."

A government statement read out on radio and television says the suspects -- members of the Zemun clan, after a Belgrade suburb -- are wanted not only for Djindjic's assassination and the failed attempt on his life when a van tried to run his limousine off the road on 21 February but for some 300 other crimes, including the kidnapping and murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic in August 2000.

Other crimes for which the suspects are sought include the attempted murder in Montenegro of Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic, dozens of kidnappings over the past several years, more than 50 murders, organized trade in narcotics, the creation of a network of drug dealers domestically and abroad, and acts of terrorism.

The government named 20 alleged leaders in the Zemun clan. Some of their nicknames read like the names of characters in an old Hollywood movie: Godfather, Dummy, Wolf, Bugsy, Rat, and Cheat. Their top leader is reported to be Milorad Lukovic, also known as Legija, a former member of the French Foreign Legion who fought in Croatia and Bosnia and headed the notorious Red Berets units in Kosovo in 1998-99 and in Serbia until last year.

Lukovic's unit effectively backed Djindjic in October 2000 by refusing to obey Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's orders to crack down on pro-reform protesters demanding his resignation. But the following year, after Djindjic ordered that Milosevic be transferred to The Hague war crimes tribunal, Lukovic criticized the transfer. Lukovic is reported to have fled Serbia, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Announcing the arrest warrants may be little more than a gesture, since the authorities have had warrants out for many of these suspects for weeks but have so far tracked down only a few of them.

Belgrade-based international-law expert Vojin Dimitrijevic noted that fear and intimidation remain a potent weapon wielded by those behind the assassination. "Obviously, Zoran Djindjic historically is the Serbian [John F.] Kennedy, and that is also why he was killed. This was a political murder to remove one essential person. If we are all frightened by this, then this will be a supreme act of terrorism that will paralyze everything and turn this country into Somalia," Dimitrijevic said.

Nebojsa Medojevic is a Montenegrin expert on organized crime and political corruption. He is skeptical about whether the Serbian government has the strength and resolve to crack down sufficiently on organized crime and the alleged war criminals they are suspected of harboring. "If the state organs, the political elite of Serbia, demonstrate their honesty and make the effort to deal with these problems and not retard cooperation with The Hague tribunal but rather intensify cooperation in such a way that it lives up to its obligations to The Hague tribunal, Serbia will have solved its domestic security problem. That's something that should be a priority for the Serbian government. However, I'm not sure that the organs of state are in control," Medojevic said.

That skepticism is widely shared. Former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said yesterday's assassination is indicative of how little progress Serbia has made toward democratizing society since the downfall of Milosevic in October 2000. "Unfortunately, I am afraid that we have to look at the truth eyeball to eyeball and see to what extent crime has seeped into all of society's pores. It is not possible to divide crime into good and bad, ours and theirs. We have to realize that it always destroys the social fabric and that it is a natural enemy of all democratic institutions," Kostunica said.

The close relationship between criminals on the one side and certain politicians and army and police commanders on the other did not vanish with the collapse of the Milosevic regime. Criminals participated in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo on all sides, particularly in paramilitary units, where they were engaged in ethnic cleansing and gathering war booty.

In peacetime, they have engaged in a variety of organized criminal activities, such as smuggling and trafficking in drugs, weapons, fuel, young women for prostitution, and refugees. In the view of the international community, organized crime remains the biggest menace to Southeastern Europe. Djindjic's assassination only confirms that view.

Acting Serbian President Natasa Micic, in declaring a state of emergency last night, called on the army, the security organs, the judiciary, the media, and political parties to unite, saying that, "This is a matter of the defense of the state and the preservation of its stability."

Micic said the state of emergency will remain in effect until the assassins are captured. "In view of the fact that the murder of the prime minister, Dr. Zoran Djindjic, on the territory of the Republic of Serbia is a threat to Serbia's security, to freedom, and the human rights of citizens and the work of constitutional organs, and with the goal of revealing and capturing those who carried out the assassination, on the basis of Article 83.8 of Serbia's Constitution and at the proposal of the government of Serbia, I declare a decision on declaring a state of emergency. The state of emergency is hereby declared on the territory of the Republic of Serbia," Micic said.

The chief justice of Serbia's Constitutional Court, Slobodan Vucetic, said the state-of-emergency measures may result in a variety of limitations on civil rights, including a possible ban on strikes and the right of citizens to assemble, as well as controls on communications and the media. Vucetic said he hopes there will be considerable caution exercised in imposing any such measures.

However, the security organs and military hierarchy are still heavily infested with Milosevic-era officers whose allegiance to the government is tenuous at best. Many may have connections to organized crime or else exercise tolerance toward veterans of the wars of the 1990s who are now engaged in crime.

Former Yugoslav Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic, the No. 2 in Djindjic's Democratic Party, issued a stern warning to the security organs, saying they are there to serve the state and society rather than criminal groups. "We will not let this be one of those murders that remain unresolved. If the responsible organs are not capable of solving the murder, of saying who held the rifle, who stood at his side, who contributed with his political activity and criminal activity to what happened -- if these organs are not capable, then they are participants [in the crime]," Zivkovic said.

In view of the gulf between the country's pro-Western, pro-reform leaders and the old guard in the army and police, it remains questionable whether Zivkovic's warning will be heeded and whether anyone has the power to carry out his implied threat.