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Balkan Report: January 18, 2000

18 January 2000, Volume 4, Number 5

Running With Wolves. The murder of Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan" is but the latest event to draw attention to the murky side of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia. The killing raises more questions that it does answers.

On 15 January, an unknown gunman or gunmen shot Arkan through the left eye at Belgrade's Intercontinental Hotel. Doctors pronounced him dead on arrival at the hospital. A second underworld figure accompanying Arkan was also killed, and a bodyguard later succumbed to his wounds.

Two days later, the police had announced no lead on the killers, one of whom may have been wounded in the scuffle. The independent daily "Danas" suggested that the person or persons involved had fled in a waiting car, which drove onto the highway linking Belgrade and Zagreb. The paper also noted that the killing was thoroughly professional.

By 18 January, there was still no word from the police. Conflicting reports emerged in media close to the regime regarding the number of killers, whether Arkan appeared to have known any of them, and whether one was wounded and is now in hospital. Already there were many more questions than answers.

This is, perhaps, not surprising. Arkan embodied a dark area of Serbian public life where politics, crime, intelligence and police work, paramilitary groups, business, sport, and entertainment come together. The son of a Serbian military officer, he was born in Slovenia on 17 April 1952. His life involved a history of criminal activity together with work for Belgrade's undercover services; in short, a double life. In communist times, for example, he combined bank robbery in Sweden with activities against Croatian emigres there.

His years in the West--including several escapes from prison--earned him a place on Interpol's wanted list, but it is for his activities of the past ten years--that is, during the Milosevic era--that he is best known. He led a paramilitary formation called the Tigers in the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia, and played a role in organizing the paramilitary "police" of the Serbian Interior Ministry in Kosova as well. Arkan and his men were known for brutality even by the standards of the Serbian paramilitaries, and played a key role in the ethnic cleansing of eastern Bosnia in early 1992. In 1997, the Hague-based war crimes tribunal indicted him for crimes against humanity.

But Arkan had other interests as well. Wartime Serbia and its sanctions provided abundant opportunities for smuggling and other illicit business activities, at which Arkan excelled. As the cosmopolitan and intellectual class that had long given Belgrade a distinctive image emigrated or struggled to make ends meet, the city increasingly acquired the imprint of the new mafia class.

Arkan was but one of the more famous of these men. He also owned the Obilic soccer club and was married to the flamboyant pop star Cvetlana Velickovic "Ceca." Her genre is known as "turbo folk" and is particularly associated with the popular culture of Milosevic's wars in the early 1990s. She was his third wife and bore him the last two of his nine children.

A man of pronounced Serbian nationalist views, he headed the small pro-Milosevic Party of Serbian Unity. Arkan claimed to have no ties to Milosevic, who in turn kept his distance in public from the man whom many regarded as his lieutenant and chief executioner. U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke noted in his memoirs that Milosevic dismissed any question of Arkan's activities as a "peanut issue." But Holbrooke also recalled that Milosevic was nonetheless "annoyed" over the American's criticism of Arkan in a way that Milosevic was not bothered by remarks about Radovan Karadzic or General Ratko Mladic.*

This leads to the question of who might have been behind the murder, and whether that someone could just be Milosevic. A number of factors point in this direction, although the truth may never be known. First, Arkan knew quite a lot about the Serbian leader's activities over many long years. After learning of Arkan's murder, Mirza Hajric--who is an aide to Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic--said in Sarajevo that "someone was making sure that one of the key people who knew too much should not live too long," AP reported.

In line with this possibility, one may recall unconfirmed press reports last year that Arkan was allegedly trying to plea-bargain with the war crimes tribunal. His daughter in Belgium and a prominent Belgian lawyer were key figures in this story. Additional reports of alleged contacts between Arkan and the court have surfaced since then.

After the killing, London's "Daily Telegraph" suggested on 18 January that Arkan had drawn closer to Serbian opposition leader Zoran Djindjic and Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic in recent months. According to this theory, Arkan was preparing to move to Montenegro for his own safety. One wonders, however, whether Djindjic or Djukanovic--each of whom is extremely conscious of his image abroad--would become linked to a notorious war criminal--unless, of course, Arkan were prepared to turn himself in to The Hague.

Second, Arkan's was not the first mysterious murder of a person from this particularly complex corner of the Belgrade underworld. Since 1992, there have been 10 unsolved murders of very prominent Serbs--some, but not all, with criminal connections--who knew a lot about Milosevic and his activities. "The Guardian" pointed out on 17 January that more such individuals--such as Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic "Frenki"--are still reported to be living in Belgrade and may now be rather concerned about their futures. Vladan Batic, who is a leader of the opposition Alliance for Change, said that Serbia is increasingly coming to resemble Colombia where rule of law is concerned.

And third, the regime's reaction to the latest spectacular murder has been rather curious. Hours went by without any commentary. When the regime media did report the story, they played it down. Since then, official Belgrade seems at a loss for words. Budimir Babovic, who is a former officer of Interpol, told the private Beta news agency that "if we do not soon receive a precise police statement as to who is behind the assassination, one should then ask the question as to whether the police are hiding the facts about the murder or maybe because they are behind it."

But perhaps the regime may soon launch a new conspiracy theory of its own, in which the alleged killers come from the ranks of Milosevic's enemies and have foreign connections. It may also be that the regime will try to obscure the facts by floating a number of conspiracy theories in the media. These would also serve to divert public attention from the country's more pressing problems.

In any event, whether or not one accepts the theory that the regime was behind the killing of Arkan, it is clear that the Milosevic era has led to a growth of gangland killings and a culture of guns and violence in the Serbian capital. One theory making the rounds in Belgrade is that Arkan had clashed with Marko Milosevic, the president's "businessman" son, over turf in the gasoline trade. Other theories focus on other aspects of Arkan's business dealings, including a desire for revenge by families of his deceased enemies. In short, it is clear that Arkan knew no shortage of people who had possible reason to do him in.

What is also certain is that he will never testify in The Hague, and the truth about many of his activities will go with him to the grave. Jacques Klein, who is the UN's chief representative in Bosnia, called Arkan a "coward and a psychopath." Klein added that "the sad part of all this is that he was not actually brought to justice, that he was not brought to The Hague." (Patrick Moore)

*Richard Holbrooke, "To End A War," ( New York: Random House, 1998), pg. 190.

Quotations Of The Week. "Numerous murders are upsetting the public...someone will finally have to answer for what is happening in our society." -- Radmilo Bogdanovic, senior official of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, in Belgrade on 17 January. Quoted by AP.

"The Tiger Who Knew Too Much." -- Headline in Munich's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung."

"He knew a lot and could do a lot." -- Headline in the Belgrade mass circulation daily "Blic."

"There are more secrets than bullets." -- Headline in the mass circulation paper "Vecernje novosti." Quoted by Reuters.