The Death of Djindjic

If anyone thinks that they will stop the rule of law and implementation of reform by eliminating me, then they are badly mistaken.”

—Zoran Djindjic,
February 24, 2003


Zoran Djindjic, the prime minister of Serbia, told his driver not to take his car into the underground parking lot of the Serbian government building at lunchtime on Wednesday, March 12. He would, he said, go in through the main entrance instead, even though he could only move on crutches, slowly and awkwardly—the week before, the Serbian prime minister had injured his Achilles’ tendon playing in a soccer match between a government team and police officers.

A little earlier in the day three men dressed as maintenance workers, one carrying a toolbox, walked into an empty two-story office building some two hundred yards from the government offices on Admiral Geprata Street. The toolbox contained a Heckler & Koch G3 gun, one of the most accurate mid-range sniper rifles in the world. With his two accomplices acting as spotters, the assassin could easily hit his slow-moving victim. The impact of a high-caliber bullet at this range was so powerful that it blew Djindjic’s heart out of his body and destroyed his lungs. A second bullet critically injured his bodyguard. Djindjic tried briefly to speak but could not—within seconds he was clinically dead. He was fifty years old. A few minutes later the killers left the building, not even bothering to hide the murder weapon.

The man suspected of pulling the trigger, Zvezdan Jovanovic, was soon arrested by the Belgrade police along with two alleged accomplices and all three are being held on charges of murder. According to Serbia’s interior minister the assassins were not cheap hired hands. They were members of the Secret Police’s Special Operations Unit, the JSO, who are notorious as the most skillful and dangerous assassins in Serbia. Jovanovic is in fact a former deputy commander of the JSO.

Known in Serbia as the Red Berets, the JSO was officially designated as Serbia’s special antiterrorist unit. In fact, there was no more powerful group of terrorists in the former Yugoslavia than the Red Berets themselves. Since they were organized under Slobodan Milosevic in 1994 they had acted as paramilitary murderers in Bosnia and Kosovo; as a death squad inside Serbia; as the representatives of organized crime groups inside the Serbian state; and also as the trainers of the Lions, the Macedonian equivalent of the Red Berets, who tried but failed to turn Macedonia’s low-level civil conflict of 2001 into a much more destructive war.

By killing Djindjic, the current and former members of the Red Berets were attempting to destabilize the Serbian state in order to preserve their own power and the economic interests of their criminal associates. They had gotten away with such murders in the past, but this time underestimated the determination and alacrity with which the Serbian government, under its new prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, would respond to their challenge.

They also failed to anticipate the public outrage at Djindjic’s death. This was an understandable error of judgment, since he had been an unpopular prime minister almost from the day he took office at the beginning of 2001. He was thought by many to be both arrogant in manner and too harsh in imposing anti-inflationary economic policies that limited government spending and caused many to lose their jobs. But after he was murdered, Djindjic became, for Serbians, a symbol of democracy, and of Serbia’s attempt to liberate itself from the violent legacy of the Milosevic era.

That Zoran Djindjic did not make much effort to be politically popular was curious in a man with good looks and immense natural charm. Well educated and quick-witted, he was at ease both among European diplomats and in the labyrinthine alleys of the carsija, the gossipy market at the heart of Balkan towns. But Djindjic, a former student activist at Belgrade University, found professional politics boring and stifling. When I last talked to him, two weeks before he was killed, he complained about the tedium of life as a prime minister and recalled the intoxicating excitement of the events that led to the fall of Milosevic in October 2000: “Now that,” he said, “was real politics! So much more invigorating than this gray world of protocol, endless meetings with people ingratiating themselves who in other circumstances you wouldn’t give the time of day to.”

Yet Djindjic was a hardheaded realist who had studied politics under Jürgen Habermas during the 1980s. After Milosevic took power in 1989, he and some of his former student allies saw that a well-organized political party would be necessary to challenge the Communist establishment. During the 1990s, Djindjic devoted time, money, and energy to turning the Democratic Party (or DS as it is known by its Serbian acronym) into a strong organization with branches throughout the country. As a result, the DS was consistently the most effective opposition organization, able to mobilize popular anti-Milosevic sentiment better than any other.

But while Djindjic understood the importance of recruiting young people throughout Serbia, he was adamant on one point—politics depends on money. In order to finance his studies in Germany during the 1970s and 1980s, Djindjic worked in a clothing shop in Munich and he was soon involved in the import and export of goods between Yugoslavia and Germany. This was the beginning of his dual life as a dashing student activist on the one hand and a shrewd businessman on the other. “Zoran appreciated at an early stage that revolution and business were not mutually exclusive activities,” observed Alexander Rondos, a senior Greek diplomat at the time of Milosevic’s fall in 2000.

The two activities often coincided when Djindjic needed cash to support his political activities. To the outside world, Djindjic was the opposition activist who tirelessly worked to bring down Milosevic by organizing demonstrations and then defeating him in the Serbian elections. But to many Serbs, he was a big-shot muvator, or wheeler-dealer, with a taste for flashy cars and natty Italian suits and with some seedy associates ready to carry out his orders. The DS, like every other serious competitor for power in the former Communist states of the Balkans, had its own shady business structure by which real estate developers and illegal and quasi-legal businesses supported the party in exchange for protection and privileges. Djindjic was closely associated with a group known as the Surcin clan, so called after the suburb that also gave its name to Belgrade’s airport.

For all his connections with such groups, Djindjic posed a threat to the criminal syndicates that have become economically powerful in the Balkans. The collapse of communism in southeastern Europe in 1989 and 1990 revealed economies that were as inefficient, unproductive, and corrupt as one would have expected after decades of rural collectivization, industrial nationalization, and, in Yugoslavia’s case, a chaotic mixture of central planning and decentralization called self-management. Those who adapted most successfully to a free and unrestrained market were generally former members of the overthrown Communist governments, who made huge fortunes by selling off the assets of the industries that were still in their control, and who kept the profits for themselves and for their new political parties.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 further destabilized the regional economy. With the growing militarization of the Balkan states (including not only the buildup of the Yugoslav army under Milosevic but also the rise of the militias in Croatia, Bosnia, and later in Kosovo), huge criminal networks emerged that were linked to similar syndicates in Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. They all profited from the new, rising demand in the region for arms and other supplies. The criminal syndicates supporting war economies received a huge boost when the United Nations imposed sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro in July 1992 for their involvement in the Bosnian war. Albanians and Croats provided Serbia with fuel. The Greek port of Thessaloniki became a vast transit station for everything from coffee to Ferraris, and illegally procured weapons poured into the entire region through every imaginable port of entry.

To pay for these imports, the formerly Communist countries in the region had to export their own goods, but since they had little experience in global commerce, they couldn’t compete with more efficiently run economies. As a result, factories throughout the region soon closed down, leading to rapidly growing rates of unemployment. But because the region was located next to the European Union, the world’s largest consumer market, the Balkan mafias were able to make money from the transport of illegal goods and services across borders.

The most widespread, and widely tolerated, activity is the smuggling of untaxed cigarettes, which sell on street corners in practically all EU countries at a third of the normal retail price. But huge profits are also made in the traffic in women, who are brought to the Balkans from many countries, including the former Soviet Union. They are then either shipped into the brothels of Milan, London, and Hamburg or they remain in the region, where they are forced to provide sex for local men or for soldiers and others serving in the peacekeeping operations of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.

The syndicates also smuggle asylum seekers and economic migrants into EU countries. They make large profits from drugs, such as opium and heroin in transit from Afghanistan and Burma, and also ecstasy and other pills manufactured in the Balkans. The syndicates also sell pirated CDs, DVDs, and computer software, as well as thousands of guns. These are multibillion-dollar industries, by far the most profitable sectors of the Balkan economies. Goran Svilanovic, the respected young foreign minister of Yugoslavia, or Serbia and Montenegro as it is now called, said that to be a Yugoslav is to live in a quasi-mafia state “where somebody orders a murder as if they were ordering a cup of coffee.”

The criminal gangs are often indistinguishable from the militias who fought in the Yugoslav wars. In Croatia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, businessmen-turned-gangsters or gangsters-turned-businessmen became paramilitary leaders. Among them were characters such as Zeljko Raznatovic (known as Arkan) in Serbia, Gojko Susak in Croatia, and the supreme muvator-turned-chieftain, Fi-kret Abdic in western Bosnia. Many of the mafia bosses and senior officers are also on the wanted list of the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.


The Red Berets were the most successful criminal organization of all because they were created, promoted, and sponsored by the Serbian State Security Service (RDB). Under the leadership of Jovica Stanisic, Milosevic’s close collaborator, the RDB became immensely powerful. In 1998, Stanisic was replaced by Rade Markovic, another ally. Milosevic’s wife, Mira Markovic (no relation to Rade), began to exert considerable influence over the RDB and Red Berets, which lasted for two years.

In the summer of 2000, opposition parties in Serbia agreed to form a coalition to support Vojislav Kostunica in challenging Milosevic in the elections for president of Yugoslavia. Zoran Djindjic was leader of the largest party in the coalition; yet he believed that Kostunica—a modest, ponderous-seeming academic and lawyer who, almost uniquely in Serbian politics, was untainted by the least hint of corruption or criminal activity—stood a better chance of winning.

Nonetheless, the Serbian opposition was deeply divided and many were skeptical at the time that they could seriously challenge Milosevic’s rule. Although resistance to Milosevic was growing, there was a distinct feeling that he was still firmly in power. Then, on August 25, 2000, Ivan Stambolic, the former president of Serbia who was now working as a banker, was grabbed by a group of men while he was jogging and thrown into a car. He disappeared without a trace.

Stambolic became Milosevic’s mentor and close friend after they met at Belgrade University in the early 1960s, and Stambolic, as a Party official, launched Milosevic’s political career. In 1987, egged on by his wife, Mira, Slobodan Milosevic turned on Stambolic and engineered his downfall at a meeting of the Serbian Central Committee, which was televised live. Millions of Yugoslavs stayed up most of the night to watch Stambolic, who was much liked by ordinary people, and saw him at the very moment when he realized that Milosevic was carrying out a spectacular political parricide. Stambolic’s humiliation marked the beginning of Milosevic’s thirteen years of bloody rule.

During that time, Stambolic retreated into political obscurity. In the summer of 2000, however, several opposition leaders approached him to see if he would consider either running against Milosevic in the presidential election or heading the opposition list in the parliamentary elections scheduled to follow soon after. Stambolic agreed to neither proposal although there were rumors circulating in Belgrade that he had accepted the second offer just before he was abducted. Nobody was arrested although most people believed Milosevic was responsible. Many thought that Stambolic’s possible candidacy had unnerved not only Milosevic but also, and in particular, Mira Markovic.

The crime remained unsolved but it gave Kostunica’s campaign a tremendous boost. Djindjic described the murder of Stambolic to me at the time as a clear signal that Milosevic and his wife were determined to hang on to power at all costs. It would, he thought, require much more than an uncorrupt opposition leader to beat Milosevic and his network. So Djindjic approached and successfully recruited several key Milosevic backers who he had good reason to believe would be willing to abandon Milosevic and support the opposition. These included two powerful paramilitary leaders, Milorad Lukovic, known as Legija (Legionnaire), the chief of the JSO, and his predecessor in the post, Frano “Frenki” Simatovic, both of whom, it was rumored, were involved in committing atrocities against civilians in the Croatian, Bosnian, and Kosovo campaigns. “For me the key contact was with Legija, the boss of the Red Berets,” Djindjic told me soon after Milosevic’s fall:

They had been allotted the role of the last line of defense in Milosevic’s strategy. We are talking about 1,200 men equipped for hand-to-hand fighting who could control 20,000 hostile civilians with no difficulty. They have helicopters, armored cars, the most modern weaponry and are something between the police and military. Milosevic had made it clear that it was either him or me. We had to beat him, otherwise he would have us arrested and killed at the first opportunity.

After Kostunica won the September election, Milosevic refused to accept the outcome, insisting that Kostunica did not receive the 50 percent of the vote required for outright victory in the first round. Zoran Djindjic, not Kostunica, called on the people of Serbia to take to the streets in defense of their democratic victory on Thursday, October 5.

Almost a million people came to the capital from the Serbian countryside, among them workers, peasants, students, and professionals. But Frano Frenki and his paramilitaries were also spotted marching alongside them. And Legija kept his word—the Red Berets remained in their barracks. Support for Milosevic evaporated, and his last resort, the Yugoslav army, was not prepared to defend him. Djindjic had won the day but only after shaking hands with the devil.


With Milosevic gone, the Western nations were willing to restore relations with Serbia and its new leaders. Economic reform progressed rapidly. Djindjic was supported by a team of experienced Serbian bankers and economists, some of them with long experience working with the European Union and other international organizations. Their main goals were getting relief from national debt, stabilizing both the currency and the economy, and reaching agreement with the IMF over a new set of loans. The measures they took, however, including the closing of government industries and the elimination of government jobs, led to a lower standard of living for most Serbs. For Djindjic, this posed a dilemma for which he never found a satisfactory answer—how could he sell a reform program that contributes to the further misery of a population already utterly disillusioned after ten years of war and industrial stagnation?

He decided that during his four-year term as prime minister he would do all he could to protect the fundamental program of reform. Djindjic and his economic team won the support of all major international organizations—the IMF, the World Bank, and the European Commission—as well as the Bush administration. The EU made no firm promises about admitting Serbia to membership, but all member states immediately recognized Djindjic, and he was received sympathetically wherever he went.

But the EU and the US also brought pressure to bear on Djindjic, both to cooperate with the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and to do more to combat organized crime. At considerable political risk, he sent Milosevic and four of his closest associates to The Hague. He openly warned the Tribunal, the US, and EU governments that his political position in Serbia was being threatened by the relentless international pressure to fight organized crime and to deliver another group of war crimes suspects to The Hague, including General Ratko Mladic, the former chief of the Bosnian Serb military.

Despite his growing isolation, Djindjic finally decided to confront the mafia groups. During most of 2002, none of the fifty-two organized crime gangs listed in a secret “white book” compiled by the Serbian police had been arrested, while fifteen killings of prominent Serbians were ascribed to the mafia. At the end of the year, Djindjic finally set up a witness protection program and he was thus able to persuade a few important criminals to start cooperating.

In February of this year, a member of the Zemun clan, named after a suburb of Belgrade and one of the largest mafia groups, drove his truck into Djindjic’s motorcade. The prime minister escaped unhurt, but the message was clear. Djindjic ignored it, increasing his pressure on the mafia, and a month later he was dead.

Serbia itself responded to the murder with a powerful display of grief. Hundreds of thousands turned out to pay their last respects as the funeral cortege moved through Belgrade in complete silence. The streets of cities, towns, and villages throughout Serbia were deserted for four hours. Almost everyone in Serbia had regarded Djindjic as a divisive figure, but in death he seemed to unite the country. A headline in the main liberal daily, Danas, proclaimed the day after the funeral, “Farewell, Serbian Kennedy.”

There were other poignant moments, none more so than when the Croatian prime minister, Ivica Racan, laid a wreath in front of the bier in Belgrade’s St. Sava Cathedral. To those watching this was a message that the wars between Serbs and Croats were over.

With the country unified in grief and anger, the new prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, formerly the mayor of Nis, Serbia’s second-largest city, felt sufficiently powerful to move against the criminal gangs. Within hours, he had dozens of suspected mafiosi arrested. The Red Berets and their leader Legija were immediately identified as the most powerful criminal gang and the group responsible for the conspiracy to kill Djindjic. Police sent a bulldozer to destroy the huge palace that the capo of the Zemun clan, Dusan Spasojevic, one of Legija’s closest allies, had built with illegal funds in Belgrade. Ceca, Arkan’s widow, a folk singer and a celebrity in the gangsters’ gaudy culture, was picked up for harboring the suspected organizers of Djindjic’s murder. Weapons and incriminating documents were found at her house and she remains in custody. Spasojevic was eventually killed in a dramatic shootout with police but Legija is still at large.

Many critics have voiced concern that some members of the government abused the special powers granted them during the state of emergency in order to settle economic and political scores. Still, this is the first time during the past thirteen years that a government anywhere in the Balkans has seriously confronted the mafia.

Two weeks after Djindjic’s assassination, the police announced an astonishing breakthrough in their investigation of the JSO. Five of its members confessed to having abducted and then killed Ivan Stambolic on August 25, 2000. One of the five took investigators to a wooded area in Fruska Gora, a park halfway between Belgrade and the Croatian border, and pointed to an improvised grave. The police dug up a single running shoe and Ivan Stambolic’s skull. His other remains had been destroyed by lime poured over his body by the killers.

The film of this event, shown repeatedly on television, has had a remarkably strong impact on Serbia, and the image of Stambolic’s mud-soaked shoe won’t easily be forgotten. A government that had been afraid of the Red Berets for so long was able to break them up. Stambolic’s killers insisted that they had received their orders for the assassination from Rade Markovic, the former head of the RDB and Mira Markovic’s close ally. Rade Markovic was already in jail. Mira Markovic immediately fled the country for Russia where her son Marko, another notorious gangster, has been hiding since October 2000.

The discovery of Stambolic’s remains appears to have dealt a final blow to Milosevic and his legacy. It has shown everyone in Serbia how petty jealousies and personal vendettas were at the heart of Milosevic’s policy of destroying Yugoslavia, starting wars, and stripping Serbia of any money and dignity that it may once have possessed. But aggressive police raids of the last six weeks are only the start, and the question now is whether they can continue. With the arrest of Veselin Sljivancanin on June 12, the Serbian authorities have kept their word—all of the so-called “Vukovar Three,” who presided over killings in Croatia, have been arrested and are now in custody. Only Mladic remains at large in Serbia. But like the rest of the region, the Serbian government is desperately low on cash to pay state employees, and its unemployment rate of over 25 percent is potentially disastrous. If the economic situation in Serbia does not improve, the mafia will likely regain their political and economic power. If this happens, it will be especially difficult for the Western nations, which are relying on the Serbian government’s cooperation, to address the political uncertainties in Kosovo, whose constitu- tional status has remained unresolved since the Serbian forces were driven from the province in 1999. (Kosovo is formally a province of Yugoslavia under UN Security Council Resolution 1244. In reality it is run as an international protectorate by the UN Mission for Kosovo, UNMIK.)

Along with the efforts of the Serbs themselves, the European Union must bear most of the responsibility for the economic well-being of southeastern Europe. The EU largely failed during the wars of Yugoslavia. Its policies since the end of the Kosovo war have sought to avoid further conflict among former Yugoslavs, but nothing more. This is no longer enough—the most powerful stimulus of reform throughout Eastern Europe in the past ten years has been the prospect of joining the EU; but until now, the EU has been reluctant to allow the nations of southeastern Europe to become members. Speaking at Djindjic’s graveside, George Papandreou, the Greek foreign minister, said: “As a friend, I pledge to you, Zoran, that I will spare no effort in helping to realize your dream of Serbia and the region rejoining Europe.” Either the EU makes good on Papandreou’s pledge, or the old Balkans will return.

It doesn’t matter whether I remain prime minister or not,” Djindjic told me late last year, “nothing can turn back these reforms now. It’s only a matter of time before they succeed.” It is still an open question whether he was right.

—June 18, 2003