Serbia is thrown into turmoil by the assassination of its prime minister
Emergency in the Balkans | March 14, 2003.
Mar 13th 2003
From The Economist Global Agenda
The killing of Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s prime minister, has sent shock waves through the Balkans, threatening to upset the region’s precarious stability after a period of relative calm. Mr Djindjic was gunned down outside the main government building in Belgrade, the capital, on March 12th. The government accused Milorad Lukovic—who was a secret-police chief under the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic—and a local crime gang of organising Mr Djindjic’s murder. Several people have been arrested but most suspects are still being sought, a minister said.
Mr Djindjic was a liberal reformer who played a key role in the downfall of Mr Milosevic, who is now on trial for genocide. In June 2001—against the wishes of Mr Milosevic's successor as Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica—Mr Djindjic and his cabinet had Mr Milosevic arrested and packed off to the Balkan war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. The move opened the way for international aid to the rump of former Yugoslavia, which last month renamed itself Serbia & Montenegro.
More than any other Serb politician, Mr Djindjic was synonymous with the post-Milosevic reform process. Modern in both thinking and demeanour, he was a natural western ally. He did not always see eye to eye with his friends in the west, though: in the mid-1990s, he backed the campaign by Serbs in Bosnia to break up the mini-state (which had recently broken away from Yugoslavia), arguing that they would not be safe in a united Bosnia, since it would be dominated by Muslims. The then leader of Bosnia’s Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, is now wanted for trial in The Hague.
What was the motive for Mr Djindjic's killing? He made various enemies during his career, first as a pro-democracy campaigner, then as Serbia’s prime minister from early 2001. He had recently been trying to clamp down on organised-crime gangs, so his murder might have been been a reaction to this. Extreme nationalists' anger at his handing-over of Mr Milosevic might also have been a motive.
Or it might have had something to do with Kosovo, the mainly Albanian-inhabited province that became an international protectorate within Serbia in 1999, after NATO-led forces kicked out Serbia’s administrators. Mr Djindjic was scheduled to hold talks with Michael Steiner, who runs the province on behalf of the United Nations, in the coming weeks. In public, Mr Djindjic had continued talking tough, voicing concern that Kosovo was drifting towards independence and saying it must be stopped. In private, though, he was said to have become quietly reconciled to the province’s loss—to the dismay of Serb nationalists.
Mr Djindjic's relationship with the much more popular Mr Kostunica was tempestuous. The two men had come together in late 2000 to topple Mr Milosevic, but had little else in common. They clashed not only over the former president’s fate, but also over reform of the police and security services, and policy towards the ethnic Albanians in the buffer zone between Kosovo and Serbia.
Last December, Mr Kostunica, whose job of Yugoslav president was being abolished, ran for president of Serbia. He came first but the poll was declared invalid because many Serbs, exasperated that their economic fortunes had failed to improve since Mr Milosevic’s downfall, did not bother to vote. Mr Kostunica accused Mr Djindjic of bringing about this outcome by padding the electoral rolls with non-existent voters. Besides clashing with Mr Kostunica, Mr Djindjic also angered his coalition partners by trying to take control of mismanaged state-owned companies.
His murder may not have been the first attempt to do away with him. On February 21st, he survived what he said was an assassination attempt when a lorry swerved into the path of his motorcade as he was travelling to Belgrade airport. He suggested at the time that the incident might have been linked to the government’s efforts to stamp out organised crime, which had flourished on Mr Milosevic’s watch. But there were also rumours that Mr Djindjic himself had become a bit too friendly with gangsters and may have become a target after falling out with them.
The son of an army officer, Mr Djindjic studied philosophy at Belgrade University in the early 1970s, when he was jailed by Yugoslavia’s communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, for trying to organise an independent students’ group. He later studied in Germany, where he became an admirer of Jürgen Habermas, a philosopher who laid bare the myths of 19th century nationalism and has called more recently for a European constitution. He returned to Serbia in 1989 and founded the Democratic Party. The party took 12% of the vote in the 1993 elections, but talks with Mr Milosevic on forming a non-partisan government failed. Three years later, Mr Djindjic co-founded the Zajedno (Together) reform block. Zajedno broke up a year later, after Mr Djindjic had been appointed mayor of Belgrade. He fled to neighbouring Montenegro during the NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia in 1999. On returning, he was soon seen as an obvious candidate to replace Mr Milosevic.
The assassination was swiftly condemned by the international community. NATO’s secretary-general, George Robertson, said he was “profoundly shocked” and blamed Mr Djindjic’s killing on “violent extremists who want to return to Milosevic authoritarianism”. He added: “They will not win, they must not win.” The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, said his death was a tragedy and described Mr Djindjic as “a friend of Europe”. President George Bush sent his condolences to the Serbian people.
While the hunt for the assassin continues, a state of emergency has been declared in Serbia. In an emergency session of the cabinet, a deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, was made acting head of government. Like Mr Djindjic, Mr Covic has also faced accusations from his opponents of getting too close to organised crime bosses. Whatever the motive for the assassination turns out to be, it seems likely to slow Serbia’s painful progress towards democracy.