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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.

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