Belgrade's Battle for the Police

A struggle for control of the police has raised tensions between the president and prime minister to a new high.

Belgrade's Battle for the Police

A struggle for control of the police has raised tensions between the president and prime minister to a new high.

On August 3, Momir Gavrilovic, a former lieutenant of the Serbian secret police, was gunned down in the street. The incident at first would appear to be just another gangland-style murder in Serbia like the many that occurred during the Milosevic era.


But this time there's a difference: Gavrilovic had visited the cabinet of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, his close acquaintance, earlier on the same day, and though the murderer has not yet been found, the incident has already sparked off an intense fight between Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic over control of the police.


One week after the shooting, Kostunica's cabinet leaked to the press that, on the day he was murdered, Gavrilovic had offered "evidence of the Serbian government's corruption and its links to the mafia".


Everyone recognised that such a statement is directed at Djindjic. A scandal was unavoidable.


Kostunica has been concentrating on Serbia, the base of Djindjic's rule, since his own position as Yugoslav federal president is weak. Kostunica has been accusing Djindjic's government of corruption for some time and calling for serious changes in the government. He is particularly insistent on the dismissal of Dusan Mihajlovic, interior minister and close Djindjic ally.


Djindjic is fighting back, trying to maintain his control of the police, but a serious crisis within the ruling coalition is developing. The Belgrade media have played an important role in this conflict.


Six days after Gavrilovic's murder, on August 9, the Belgrade daily Blic, quoting an anonymous source in Kostunica's cabinet, reported that Gavrilovic had been in Kostunica's cabinet on the day he was murdered. According to Blic, Gavrilovic was speaking with two of Kostunica's advisors about corruption within the Serbian government.


The same source confirmed to Blic that Gavrilovic had handed over "confidential papers with evidence" revealing the connection between the Serbian government and the Belgrade underworld.


The daily said the government was connected to members of the Surcinci, currently recognised as the most powerful criminal gang in Serbia, having achieved this dubious distinction after the murder of Zeljko ("Arkan") Raznatovic on January 15 last year.


Although Blic's source declined to reveal precise details about who was suspected of criminal connections, the finger was clearly pointed at Djindjic.


Djindjic's people saw the newspaper article as an attack by Kostunica. Both Vladan Batic, Serbian justice minister, and Zarko Korac, deputy president of the Serbian government, held a press conference on August 9, demanding that Blic's editor-in-chief, Veselin Simonovic, reveal his source.


During police questioning, neither Simonovic nor the author of the article, Dusan Vukajlovic, was prepared to do so.


Mihajlovic later told media that he saw no reason for police to question journalists over the publication of the story. This only prompted further questions as to who is really in charge of the police.


"This is a first class scandal," Djindjic told Voice of America when the affair broke. He said that in his opinion the very future of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, was in question. "This is the most serious crisis since the DOS was founded," he added.


But Kostunica did not pull any punches. Indeed, the same evening, August 9, he appeared on state television, and in a dramatic address to the nation, he confirmed that Gavrilovic had met with his advisers.


"Gavrilovic wished to reveal how organized crime permeates our economy. He spoke about their power and the widespread activities of certain clans," explained Kostunica.


Unlike the article in Blic, Kostunica made no mention of any documents or any involvement of the Surcinci.


He offered investigators the help of the advisors, Gradimir Nalic and Rade Bulatovic, who had met Gavrilovic. The two were granted special permission to act as witnesses for the investigation despite their obligation not to reveal state secrets. Several days later, they made their statements to police but still were unable to provide any actual documentary evidence.


Djindjic's associates have responded by pressing Kostunica to come up with evidence.


Meanwhile Kostunica stands accused of setting up a parallel police. If the country has parallel police institutions, said Mihajlovic, then Serbia is creating a climate in which criminals can thrive.


Officials from Kostunica's party claim that the fact Gavrilovic spoke about the connection between organised crime and the state reveals the difficult situation within the police and judiciary.


"Gavrilovic visited someone whom he can trust," said Dejan Mihajlov, an official of Kostunica's party.


The real question is whether Gavrilovic's case can be solved at all. Even if Kostunica was able to get hard evidence from Gavrilovic somehow proving a connection between Djindjic and organized crime, it is hard to see how such evidence would be reliable.


However, this is not to say Gavrilovic could not offer Kostunica compromising material about his rival. Judging from his career within the state security service, this policeman had good contacts with the underworld.


Although, he did not manage to climb higher echelons of the service, Gavrilovic's colleagues speak of him as an excellent counter-intelligence officer. One former colleague, who wished to remain anonymous, claims that he was loyal to Jovica Stanisic, the influential chief of secret police dismissed by Milosevic in December 1998.


"He wasn't interested in internal clashes within the service," this source told IWPR, "so he stayed in office even after the arrival of Rade Markovic," chief of the secret police from 1998 to 2001. The same source claims Gavrilovic, who excelled as a field agent in Eastern Slavonia, Croatia, as well as in Kosovo in 1998-99, was doing some dirty work with criminals on behalf of the state security service.


Although he left the service in August 1999, Gavrilovic would be able to help Kostunica with his knowledge of the underworld.


It is obvious Kostunica was ready to accept such offers. Gavrilovic's wife, Aleksandra Lazic Gavrilovic, said on August 14 that her husband's meeting with Kostunica's men on the day he was murdered was his third visit to the cabinet. During his visit on April 20, according to her, he met with Yugoslav president himself.


She said she was under the impression from conversations with her husband that Kostunica had asked him to come back to the security service and that they discussed personnel changes within the service.


Kostunica, says a government source, had declared during a DOS meeting that he would demand a change of the security service leadership, which is under Djindjic's control.


Apparently, Gavrilovic was one of the Yugoslav president's players in his increasingly energetic game of reconstructing the Serbian government to the benefit of his own party, the Democratic Party of Serbia.


Although Kostunica's unsubstantiated attack represents a punch below the belt, he seems to have accomplished his task of weakening Djindjic. Widely seen as uncorruptible, he made his simple style of life, driving a Yugo and wearing unfashionable clothes, into a strong part of his appeal. In any political confrontation in which the issue of corruption is to the fore, Kostunica rightly reckons he will win hands down.


At the moment when Serbia is undergoing a dramatic social transformation, corruption charges, even unfounded charges, will find resonance among the population. Djindjic, generally perceived by the Serbian public as an amoral technocrat, was an excellent target.


Kostunica, interested in further extending his influence over the police, may call for the dismissal of Mihajlovic, whose position looks increasingly in jeopardy.


At the moment, it is difficult to determine whether Djindjic will be able to defend his influence over the police. If he fails to answer Kostunica's demands, Kostunica may even call for new elections, and he would certainly beat the Serbian prime minister at the polls.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a journalist with the Sarajevo-based weekly Dani.

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