Comment: Dark Side of Serbian Revolution

As well as cracking down on the mafia, the authorities are threatening the country's nascent democracy.

Comment: Dark Side of Serbian Revolution

As well as cracking down on the mafia, the authorities are threatening the country's nascent democracy.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Serb leaders have received broad media and public support for the imposition of a state of emergency intended to root out the mafia, and put an end to the Milosevic era, following the assassination of premier Zoran Djindjic on the March 12.

But despite obvious success, there are already signs that some may be harnessing the will for change not only to fight the underworld, but also to silence some media outlets, fight political enemies, rearrange the judiciary, and settle old personal scores.

And, it looks like they are in a hurry to tie up as many of their own loose ends while the state of emergency is in place.

In a move redolent of the Tito era, the authorities announced on April 2 that a special commission has been set up to investigate who was criticising the government and Djindjic from 2001 onwards, up to his assassination.

The commission, initiated by the interior ministry and organised by the culture ministry, with the help of some journalists, aims to prove that some members of the media had foreknowledge of the assassination and were linked with the mafia.

But the sad truth is that you would have to have been deaf, dumb and blind in Serbia not to see what was happening and fear the logical outcome. Media reports and public speculation about a possible showdown between Djindjic and the mafia were commonplace. For two years, the slain premier put off dealing with the underworld, which helped increase their influence and led to the growing criminalisation of society as whole. A clear threat was emerging.

The commission's findings will endanger media freedom. It is likely to single out a number of journalists as mafia collaborators - which will serve as a warning to others to refrain from investigating what connections, if any, existed between current officials and the mafia. These links were the subject of media speculation for months before the assassination, especially in those publications seen as supporters of Djindjic's rival Vojsilav Kostunica, leader of Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS.

Before the commission was established, several suspicious decisions to silence the media were taken. TV Leskovac, in southern Serbia, was fined heavily because they broadcast an interview with a DSS official, who commented on ongoing investigations into Djindjic's assassination and criticised the state of emergency.

In the northern town of Sombor, the editor of the local newspaper Somborske novine, owned by the municipality, was replaced, without any explanation being offered to the public.

Also, the privatisation of B92, run by veteran anti-Milosevic media fighter Veran Matic, was blocked on March 27. There was no official explanation. Matic, who maintained his independent line after Milosevic fell, was harassed frequently in the past by Djindjic's allies and they now appear to be moving against him.

And immediately after Djindjic's assassination, the government decided to close two newspapers - Identitet and Nacional, and forbid the distribution of Montenegrin daily Dan in Serbia. Belgrade's independent media community, which fought Milosevic in the past, didn't attempt to protect them, for a number of reasons.

Indentitet was perceived as close to Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, ex-comander of the special police unit, the Red Berets, who is accused of Djindjic's assassination and is on the run.

Nacional, a tabloid with a high circulation, was frequently criticised for publishing inaccurate information and for attacking Djindjic's government.

The government now says that the paper had links with the Zemun mafia, which is suspected of involvement in the premier's murder.

The editor of Nacional, Predrag Popovic, says officials were harassing him for months by sending the financial police round or pressuring companies not to advertise in his newspaper. Just like old times under Milosevic.

Whatever the truth is, the state of emergency and the lack of any media inquiry led to the silent liquidation of the paper on April 2.

This disturbing development in the media comes after a successful crack down on Milosevic-era criminals and the Zemun mafia.

In just two weeks, much of what was dreamt of in the long and dark years, while Vukovar was shelled, Sarajevo bombed and Kosovo civilians expelled, has been achieved.

The Red Berets, responsible for so many war crimes in the past, have now been dismantled. Two thousand criminals have been arrested. The body of Ivan Stambolic, symbol of the comparative normality of pre-Milosevic Yugoslavia, has finally been discovered. And western diplomats are supporting Serbian authorities more than ever.

Shadowy figures from Milosevic's secret service, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic are now behind bars. And cooperation with The Hague tribunal is hopefully secured. Even foreign investors, who used to turn their backs on Serbia, are now keen to help out. Most significantly, Serbia and Montenegro was this week accepted into the Council of Europe.

These enormous achievements are the reason why the majority of Serbian journalists seem to have accepted the strict rules of reporting under the current restrictions. Most of them are still naively ready to surrender their own freedom in order to get rid of Milosevic's inheritance. Neither has there been any public outcry.

This, obviously, will encourage sections of government to take advantage of the prevailing mood to proceed apace with the settling of old personal scores. And not just with those journalists that angered them in the past.

The authorities have been busy clearing the judiciary of mafia-era judges, but many of those who had fought both Milosevic and the current administration are also being forcibly retired or sidelined. Now, an independent judiciary is out of the question. A draconian criminal code is planned, without any public debate.

There is serious concern among international human rights activists about the conditions of the 2000 recently arrested suspects. The emergency ruling allowing the interior ministry to detain people for up to 30 days without access to a lawyer is particularly worrying. Given that Serbian police are known to use torture, the detention of hundreds of suspects without legal representation can only spell disaster.

Added to this, Minister of Justice Vladan Batic recently suggested that the death sentence should be re-introduced during state of emergency. Many think this would be a convenient way to get rid of those who could threaten the present government.

Despite the authorities' insistence that the two main suspects in the Djindjic murder, Dusan "Siptar" Spasojevic, the leader of Zemun gang, and Milivoje "Kum" Lukovic, also a member of group, were killed while resisting arrest, there have already been suggestions that they could have been executed.

Whatever happened, it is a pity that they won't be able to testify in court. Their revelations might have provided crucial information about the Milosevic era and some of the murkier goings on in the first two years of democratic rule.

And finally there is the ongoing privatisation process. The government has decided that this will not stop during the state of emergency. This has alarmed some, as without proper media scrutiny there's no way of knowing just how transparent tenders are.

The question is why the government has taken such regressive steps, instead of establishing itself as a power ready to lead Serbia, for the first time in decades, towards democracy.

The answer is that those in government feel quite vulnerable because Djindjic was so crucial to keeping them together, and are using the state of emergency to strengthen their positions and business interests before the political situation stabilises and new elections are called.

Djindjic's Democratic Party, DS, is particularly keen to take advantage of the present conditions, as there's a danger that it will be marginalised now that its leader is gone.

Another reason for the government's actions is that its members want to avoid taking responsibility for what has happened in Serbia during the last two years - the mafia, corruption, war criminals walking freely through the streets.

In the end nobody felt the need to resign after Djindjic's assassination. His ministers and officials are behaving as if they had just woken up from a coma and are surprised that Serbia is a mafia society.

This is disingenuous, as a number of them held positions of influence and power under Milosevic and should have done more to combat the mafia after he was ousted.

Take just one major figure, Dusan Mihajlovic, the leader of minor party Nova Demokratija, who is a successful businessman and Serbia's minister of police.

In 1993 Milosevic lost his majority in parliament, prompting many to believe that his time was up. However, Mihajlovic, who belonged to the opposition at the time, jumped ship, joined the Milosevic coalition and provided the regime with seven more years of stealing and one further war in Kosovo.

Later, Mihajlovic changed sides once more and in 2001 became minister of interior in the new government. Over the last two years, he hasn't arrested one major gangster and war criminals still walk the streets.

What Serbia needs now is a clear break with its past!

Gordana Igric is IWPR's Balkans project manager

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