The Final Settlement

Fascinated by Zeljko Raznjatovic Arkan, Legija tried hard to leave an impression as the only heir to the best known Serbian paramilitary commander. That meant he had to be a family man and a rich Mafia man, a respected patriot and someone whose name causes fear and obedience. Legija, as opposed to Arkan, had trouble playing this role: he lacked the experience of a real street criminal and the familiarity with the world outside barracks and the military.

Written by: Filip Svarm

The State Security quickly reacted to the changes after October 5th and immediately imposed itself to the new centers of decision-making. On one side, Kostunica based his power on general popularity and the authority of the president of the Republic. On the other, Djindjic dominated the political life with his charisma and organizational abilities, and it was just a matter of days when he would formally become the Serbian prime minister. They both cultivated personal animosity that was created during the ten years in the opposition. The state security did not miss out on this opportunity either: just as Legija was seeing Djindjic and his associates, so Radomir Markovic – conscientiously and regularly – was meeting with Kostunica and his advisers. One and the other were telling their superiors what Djindjic and Kostunica wanted to hear. Beside the rivalry between the two democratic leaders, the conflict in southern Serbia worked to the advantage of Legija and Markovic. The Albanian illegal Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja attempted in late 2000 to separate those two counties from Serbia. The regular police was then almost in shambles, so the Unit was immediately sent to southern Serbia.

When Djindjic formed his government, Radomir Markovic was arrested. No one talked about the dismissal of the Unit, however, because of southern Serbia, as well as for another reason.

“We thought it would not be wise to let out two hundred highly professional assassins on the streets and allow them to become bodyguards of various dubious businessmen,” says Dusan Mihajlovic, former minister of internal affairs.

The Unit, therefore, started protecting the politicians from the new government after – a highly likely – provocations by Legija in February 2001. During the meeting between Prime Minister Djindjic with the new head of the State Security, Goran Petrovic, Petrovic’s driver was attacked and wounded. Legija appeared at the scene quicker than lightning.

“Through his connections, Legija heard that someone shot at Petrovic’s driver,” says Cedomir Jovanovic, former opposition party whip. “He arrived to the parking in front of the building of the Democratic Party, and then he was invited to the meeting upstairs. He offered his protection, i.e. the protection of the Unit, and that was accepted at the time.”

The Unit protected the prime minister for a few days only. Legija, however, succeeded in having his men become part of the official police protection of various important functionaries. But Legija placed those same men as bodyguards of certain businessmen, as well as of his partner Dusan Spasojevic, the head of the Zemun clan. Also, the founder of the Red Berets, Franko Simatovic Frenki didn’t sit idle either. He requested an audience with Dusan Mihajlovic and Cedomir Jovanovic, but Frenki’s requests were greatly different than Legija’s.

“The meeting was short,” Jovanovic says. Simatovic was exclusively concerned about himself. He didn’t care about the Red Berets. He didn’t come as Legija before him to see the minister of internal affairs and to say: ‘In my Unit no one is employed, the people work under contract, my people don’t have health insurance.”

Mihajlovic explains what the status of the USO members was: “Those people were held like legionaries, as a sort of slaves the Service could fire at any time.”

Frenki was not sentimental because hardly anyone knew better what the Unit is and who is in it. At the moment when Legija arranged for all its members to be employed full-time in the police, the whole system of measures by which the former head of the State Security, Jovica Stanisic, and Frenki held this formation under control and in obedience, became history. The Unit became more respected and inviolable than ever.

Was the Unit really la crème de la crème? Captain Dragan Vasiljkovic – the man who was the first one to line up the men who will become the Red Berets – was not impressed in the least when he, at the end of the ‘90s, went to assess an exercise of the Unit for the State Security: “The demonstrational exercise looked more like a circus part in which a soldier shoots at a balloon held my another soldier. It is absurd and unnecessary risk. During that exercise, a soldier was shot in the arm, and he was disabled for the rest of his life. I was very angry and I thought it was stupid. The only thing you could get is applause, and you risked having your own man killed. For me that exercise was very unprofessional.”

Legija proved very resilient in the conflict between Djindjic and Kostunica. That became evident when the Unit was used for the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic in late March 2001, which became a three-day-long circus. Milosevic did not agree to leave his residence where he fortified himself until Jovanovic, in the name of the government, guaranteed that he is being arrested for violating state laws, and not because of the accusation of the Hague Tribunal. Did Legija then procrastinate on purpose and dramatize the arrest, it is hard to judge. It is clear that, however, that Jovanovic could not have carried out his assignment if Legija had not lead him into the residence.

Still, three months later, on St. Vitus Day, June 28th 2001, Milosevic was sent to the prison of the Hague Tribunal. As the president of FR Yugoslavia, Kostunica opposed that decision of Djindjic’s government, and the extradition turn into a big state crisis.

In this weighing of power Djindjic came out as winner. The seriously damaged relationship between the president of the federal state and the prime minister of Serbia became irreparable after one crime. Momir Gavrilovic, one of the former members of the Unit, was liquidated on August 3rd 2001, a few hours after a meeting in which Kostunica talked to his advisors about the influence of Mafia on the DOS (the coalition in power) structure. This homicide was never cleared up. But since then Djindjic and his associates were accused by Kostunica’s camp of their links with organized crime. In return, the prime minister’s team will label Kostunica as the main protector of the legacy of the Milosevic regime and the obstructer of all reforms. Sometimes it seemed they are greater rivals to one another than they ever were to Slobodan Milosevic.

The Unit seemed to be involved in all these political conflicts. In early 2001, the power of its commander became enormous. His problems were not any lesser, though.

Fascinated by Zeljko Raznjatovic Arkan, Legija tried hard to leave an impression as the only heir to the best known Serbian paramilitary commander. That meant he had to be a family man and a rich Mafia man, a respected patriot and someone whose name causes fear and obedience. Legija, as opposed to Arkan, had trouble playing this role: he lacked the experience of a real street criminal and the familiarity with the world outside barracks and the military.

Taking care of the Unit, Legija spent a lot more time on his ground. No one knew what exactly the Red Berets do, and what they occupy themselves with: he neither reported to the head of the State Security, nor did Petrovic request such reports. The commander of the Unit put every effort into keeping such a status: he kept his men in a state of constant irritation with talks about its dismissal and the extradition of certain individuals to the Hague Tribunal, and he was intimidating the government with stories about how the Unit is dangerous when dissatisfied. For every state control threatened to deprive Legija of the other base of his power – Dusan Spasojevic’s Zemun clan. This Mafia gang ruled over the underground thanks to Legija and his status in the State Security. The Unit protected Spasojevic, secured his transport of heroin, reported to him about the intentions of the police, and, when needed, gave him all the needed support when he kidnapped rich people and liquidated rivals. The price of these services wasn’t small. Spasojevic split his entire profit with Legija.

Too many challenges for a former legionary and a paramilitary soldier. Too many decisions for someone who was given orders all his life. And after October 5th Legija remained alone: Arkan was dead, Radomir Markovic in prison, Frenki and Stanisic, retired, on their yachts on the Sava, with his influence limited to political underground.

It is not surprising Legija found a vent in stormy nightlife. In bars, as in the Unit, he liked rituals. Jack Daniels was served in two glasses. He drank from one, and the other, called the guard, no one could touch all night. Left of the glasses for Jack, there was a can, and to the right a glass of energy drink. The waiter who would make a mistake in this ritual would be doomed.

A policeman and a criminal at the same time, Legija planned out with Spasojevic the kidnapping of a wealthy businessman, Miroslav Miskovic. While Spasojevic was demanding a ransom, Legija was offering Mihajlovic to use the special helicopter from the Unit for seeking the kidnappers. Miskovic was released after a ransom of seven million Deutschmarks was paid. Mihajlovic, however, announced his resignation if the kidnappers were not found in a month. Right before the expiration of the deadline, Spasojevic and the core of this gang were arrested in France and extradited to Belgrade. The news was announced on May 12th 2001, on the eve of the Day of Security. That same night, Legija burned down nightclub Fortress in Kula.

“Around midnight I asked the commander of the police why had the police not come,” says Igor Vujacic, the proprietor of the nightclub. “He told me he didn’t dare send anyone because Legija would have killed them all. The police was afraid of this unit of the State Security as were other citizens.”

It was evident that Legija didn’t have it easy. If he doesn’t succeed in protecting the partners from the Zemun clan, his credibility in the underground would be jeopardized. Besides, he had to send a clear signal to Spasojevic that he wasn’t the one who arranged his arrest. The pressure on Legija was rapidly increasing. Danica and Vuk Draskovic persistently requested his responsibility for the crime on the Ibar highway. At the end he was forced to personally turn in two members of the Unit to the court, Nenad Ilic Rambo and Nenad Bujosevic Head. These two direct executioners of the crime on the Ibar high, together with commander Legija, came up with a story that they didn’t know who their target was, and they thought their assignment was to stop certain Albanian terrorists. Legija, however, was still not able to relax. In early June 2001, at the birthday party of the country diva Ceca, widow of the deceased Zeljko Raznjatovic Arkan, Legija, after a fight in the club “Stupica” attacked a police patrol. At the end he had to be personally taken in by the deputy head of the State Security, Zoran Mijatovic. As soon as Legija found himself in prison, the command of the Unit contacted Jovanovic.

“They come to me, because they don’t have anyone else, because they don’t know anyone who can pick up the phone and dial the prime minister, and they don’t consider the minister of police as someone important,” Jovanovic remembers. “They say Legija was arrested, he was taken to “November 29,” and it is an insult for the whole Unit, it is outrageous.”

After these threats with an armed resurrection, Djindjic had no choice. Jovanovic, in order to calm down the situation, had to visit Legija in prison himself: “At that moment he looked like Morrison a second before death, from a drug cocktail and alcohol. He was without shoelaces, without a belt, his pants were falling down… At the end he picked up that phone and called Dusan Maricic Gumar and told him that the Unit be prepared.”

The preparedness lasted shortly. As soon as Legija was released, he retired on his own request, and he went on vacation to Greece. The real problems for the government of Zoran Djindjic began in early October of the same year: Spasojevic was released out of prison under unclear circumstances, plus Legija came back to the country with his bodyguards.

The meeting was organized in the garage of Dusan Spasojevic’s house in Schiller Street in Zemun.

“The meeting lasted very shortly,” Jovanovic says, “and its purpose was to declared war on us. But not by saying – ‘I am against you,’ because that was assumed, but by saying ‘I am for Kostunica.’ In the back of the garage, Dusan Spasojevic and his people with characteristic physiognomies and clothes were standing the whole time.”

Legija and Spasojevic had a reason for hurry: a good part of the Zemun clan was still behind bars, and Legija had to appear in court again because of the assassination on the Ibar highway. These two used a chance to show who the real boss in Serbia is when the Unit, for no apparent reason, participated in the arrest of brothers Banovic, Bosnian Serbs accused at the Hague Tribunal. The Unit played again on the conflict between Kostunica and Djindjic. While Kostunica was opposed to extradition to the Tribunal without a special law, Djindjic was a lot more pragmatic. Under the excuse of being deceived and offended by participating in the arrest of brothers Banovic, the Unit blocked the highway near Novi Sad on November 10th. Soon, the members of the security at the government building and certain state officials retreated from their places.

The armed rebellion found Prime Minister Djindjic in an official visit to the White House. As soon as he came back, he met with the highest police functionaries who told them they don’t have the power that could oppose the Unit. And if the adequate force did not exist in the police, it did in the Yugoslav Army. Not once did Djindjic seriously ask for Kostunica’s help; not once did Kostunica seriously offer help to Djindjic. While the president of FR Yugoslavia found pleasure in prime minister’s troubles, Djindjic went to Kula to negotiate with the rebels rather than let Kostunica humiliate and blackmail him. The Unit had it their way: in the Center “Radoslav Kostic” in Kula, Jovanovic remembers how he was separated from Djindjic: “Rifle in the ribs – and you there, you here. In Kula you are not the prime minister and the whip.”

Djindjic accepted the request of the Unit to replace the head and the deputy of the State Security, Goran Petrovic and Zoran Mijatovic. But that wasn’t enough for Legija. As soon as Djindjic came back to Belgrade, he was informed that the Unit has set out for Belgrade. In the early hours of November 12th 2001, USO blocked a part of the highway in front of Center Sava with the request that Minister Mihajlovic resign as well. At the same time, Legija was taking stand as witness in the trial for the Ibar highway. After coming out of the courtroom, he said to the journalists that he thinks the armed rebellion is justified and that everyone has a right to protest in their uniforms.

Kostunica could not hide his satisfaction about the problems Djindjic found himself in. At a press conference held on the same day, he cited Legija not mentioning his name. At the same time he said that the Unit was obstructing only traffic.

After that it was clear there is no political consensus in Serbia between the democratic parties concerning the final settlement with the Unit. Rade Bulatovic, at the time Kostunica’s security adviser, today director of the secret police made sure everyone knew it. In the political weekly NIN, in a column entitled “Praise to patriotism,” he openly supported the armed rebellion. Since the Unit did not give in, this time Mihajlovic and Jovanovic went to Kula to conduct negotiations. The representatives of the government are again divided, and the command is unyielding – Mihajlovic has to resign. For this occasion, for the first and only time, the Unit allowed journalists into their base. The public thus had the opportunity to see the Commemoration room, Officer’s club, the wall with the photos of the killed members of the Red Berets, maps showing their war trail, a collection of confiscated weapons… When Mihajlovic wrote the resignation and went to read it publicly, he met Jovanovic who tore it up.

After a new round of talks, it was decided that Mihajlovic offer his resignation to Prime Minister Djindjic. Before the entire command, Jovanovic and Legija, the minister sat at the table and started writing another one of his resignations.

“While Mihajlovic is writing, next to the table where he is sitting, the Serbian hero, the fearless warrior and the commander of the Red Berets is kneeling and weeping on his knees,” Jovanovic says. “Through tears Legija kept repeating how he didn’t want this to happen. At one point, Minister Mihajlovic looks at him across his glasses and tells him: ‘Mister commander, this is not your level.’ Legija reacted to this by sobbing from the depth of his soul.”

Dusan Mihajlovic says that he realized then that Legija is not only a top commando, but also the best drama actor he knew.

According to the testimonies of Mihajlovic and Jovanovic, Legija took out his knife and offered to cut his own finger. When Jovanovic said there are a lot more people who would rather see Legija dead, the deputy commander of the Unit, Zvezdan Jovanovic, attacked the democratic whip with a knife. Maricic defended him, Jovanovic said, adding: “Don’t let yourself be imprisoned for of him as you would for a man.”

The rebels succeeded in obtaining all their requests: they had Milorad Bracanovic, Legija’s former officer for security in the USO, elected the new deputy head of the State Security; members of the Zemun clan were released from prison; the Unit, although separated from the State Security, become a formation under a dubious control of the government, and no one even thought about an indictment of Spasojevic and Legija. Still, deeply humiliated, Dindjic was not ready for further concessions, and he didn’t accept Milosevic’s resignation. Legija realized that when he was composing the official announcement about the end of the armed rebellion with Mihajlovic and Jovanovic.

During the armed rebellion of the Unit, Legija had a strong logistics support in Spasojevic and his Zemun clan. From the recordings of the conversation between the two of them, published in the political weekly “Vreme,” it is evident they discussing bringing journalists to Kula, the movements of the politicians, and they made plans together for the rebellion. With Bracanovic at the head of the Service, the two of them didn’t have to worry about phone conversations anymore: now they have become the ones who had the results of eavesdropping at their disposal…

In this period, Legija and Spasojevic thought they were omnipotent: the heroin commerce was in full bloom, they were liquidating rivals in the underground one after the other, and the Zemun clan was spending tens of thousands euros on bribing judges, policemen and politicians. As a separate expense—but extremely worth the effort—Spasojevic had the financing of the Unit.

If there was someone whom Legija and Spasojevic had underestimated, it was Zoran Djindjic. Firmly resolute to terminate the Unit and the Zemun clan, he energetically started building institutions for fighting organized crime, but also strengthening the Gendarmerie as a police formation. For reasons that were never cleared up, Spasojevic came into conflict in 2002 with his former boss and protector, Ljubisa “Cume” Buha.

Cume was at the head of the Surcin clan, a Mafia gang known for stealing cars. Business spread to other activities of organized crime. As many other people, he didn’t miss out on the opportunity to appear in the Municipal Parliament during October 5th, and establish contacts with the new government. Increasingly distancing himself from Spasojevic, Cume at this time transferred the capital accumulated in criminal activites into legal business, opening a firm for paving roads “Defense Road.”

In this very firm in August 2002 Cume survived an assassination attempt organized by Spasojevic and Legija. Knowing well with whom he is dealing, he immediately left the country, realizing the only chance to save his skin was to testify against them. Spasojevic and Legija were aware of that as well.

Knowing that Cume is intensely collaborating with the government, panic struck the Spasojevic villa in Schiller Street. When in early 2003 Legija and Spasojevic found Cume in Istanbul and tried to liquidate him once again, he ran into our embassy in Ankara, and he was ready to tell it all.

The state was ready for the final settlement with the Unit and the Zemun clan: a special court for organized crime was formed, Cume acquired the status of a protected witness, and the police was ready for action. All this was known to Legija and Spasojevic. In space extremely narrowed down for maneuvering, they decided to kill the archrival – Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

They tried at least a few times. When in February 2003 a member of the Zemun clan, Dejan Milenkovic Bugsy with his truck cut off and almost blocked the prime minister’s column near Belgrade arena – so that the members of the Unit could open fire from bazookas and automatic rifles – they almost succeeded. The fact that Bugsy was immediately released after the arrest thanks to Legija’s connections and Spasojevic’s bribe, only came as an encouragement for those two to keep on trying. Since they were able to liquidate Cume, since they were leaving a bloody trail behind them, since they didn’t have a place to hide, they thought the only thing left for them to do is to kill the man who was at the head of the action against them – Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

On Wednesday March 12th 2003 at 12:25 Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated. It was too much for Serbia. On that day, Serbia said NO: to Legija, to Spasojevic, to the Zemun clan, to the Unit. Once and for all, on March 12th 2003 Serbia broke up with Milosevic’s legacy. Once and for all, Serbia opened up its eyes. Zoran Djindjic has won his greatest battle.