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Comment: Serbia Threatened by Underworld

A new power struggle could soon break out in Serbia - between the premier and the mafia.
By Gordana Igric

I almost regretted the era of Slobodan Milosevic was over. At least in his time when journalists faced intimidation or surveillance they knew who was behind it, namely Milosevic's state security service.


These days it is much harder to track down the source of threats and harassment, as the list of potential suspects is much longer.


For instance, while I was recently investigating a war crime committed in the Kosovo village of Suva Reka, one morning I found wooden planks had been stacked up against my front door in Belgrade, as if they were prison bars.


The next morning the front doorbell rang, but when I opened the door all I could see was a strange-looking note with a cell phone number on it. I dialled the number and a male voice in a droll tone suggested I meet him in a hotel "where everything would be cleared up".


It is no easy task to find out who is actually behind such harassment. Firstly, it could be the person responsible for the slaughters of dozens of Albanian civilians in Suva Reka. He is now believed to work for the newly reformed state security service, the BIA, and possibly found out about my investigation.


But it could be more organised, orchestrated from the top of the political hierarchy and aimed at deterring me from pursuing my leads. For instance, at BIA headquarters in Belgrade an official from whom, as a journalist, I expected protection told me in a telephone conversation that speaking "as a brother to his sister", he thought my inquiries were "not good for my health".


Then again, it could be the work of militant war veterans, concerned about new extraditions of suspected war criminals to The Hague. The Red Berets, set up as a special police unit by Milosevic, took part in a number of different wars in the 1990s. Their supporters frequently send messages to Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic through the media, warning him of the consequences of agreeing to more extraditions.


But the list of suspects is by no means exhausted. IWPR has investigated the ties between various mafia and criminal groups in Serbia and their role in smuggling tobacco, drugs and sex slaves. They also might be involved.


Then again, those responsible could even be alienated factions within the government, which has come under increasing criticism for alleged illegal dealings with dubious criminal groups. For months, the government has promised a fierce campaign against these organisations, but has yet to take concrete steps. As some western diplomats are wont to say, "When you say 'the government', you often do not know who you're referring to."


In present-day Serbia, no one knows for sure who truly wields power.


Such a state of nervousness is reflected in the media, where fears of surveillance are omnipresent.


Editors whisper softly when they meet me and confine telephone conversations to their most guarded remarks. Everyone believes they are being overheard, including those who support the prime minister and who detest the war veterans' lobby, represented by the Red Berets' former leader, Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, who rides around town in an expensive sports car with tinted windows.


Those who prefer the prime minister's chief political rival, Vojislav Kostunica, whisper just as softly. They too believe their conversations are tapped, though this time, by the premier's staff.


They arrange their appointments in noisy restaurants where it is "more difficult to eavesdrop" and turn off their cell phones. In accordance with "expert advice", they stand at some distance from their phones when talking in confidence, as they have been told they are the best tool for short-range surveillance.


Djindjic himself has claimed that mafia has better tapping devices then the Serbian police. Interestingly, on January 21 Identitet newspaper revealed apparent details of his conversation with an ally.


The newspaper, close to the war veterans' lobby, reported that they had discussed ways to deal with the increasingly disloyal Red Berrets and plans to arrest the leader of a mafia gang in Zemun. The title said that they published material delivered to them by "a foreign intelligence service".


Kostunica has also complained that he was being tapped.


Who is to blame for this state of chaos? First of all one should point the finger at Serbia's ruling elite, which for too long has dragged its feet over confronting the war veterans and the criminal groups that penetrated the police under Milosevic.


The present political elite relied on these groups for assistance during the overthrow of Milosevic and then pardoned their earlier actions out of a mistaken belief that only Milosevic and a couple of his cronies would be held accountable for the regime's serious crimes. They thought they could ingratiate themselves with the West through sporadic handovers to The Hague tribunal while everyone else would be left in peace.


They sent the same message to the public each time someone was handed over to The Hague -we're extraditing these people not because we believe them to be war criminal but because failure to do so means we won't receive western funds.


The international community and its diplomats in Belgrade are equally to blame. Out of respect for the prime minister's apparent willingness to cooperate with The Hague, (while his rival Kostunica clung to an old-fashioned, nationalist, anti-Hague stance), the West was too lenient towards Djindjic when it came to his handling of internal Serbian affairs.


The consequences of having turned a blind eye in this way are all too visible. Milosevic's men shifted at least 6 billion US dollars out of the country before the regime fell. Yet the old regime's most prominent representatives continue to enjoy their luxury villas undisturbed. Not one single dollar has been returned, and no one has been convicted.


Milosevic's pet media groups have become the favourites of the new government and have grown into powerful media corporations, while the independent press have either had to relinquish their independence or be marginalised to the point where they no longer exert much influence.


The authorities exhumed the corpses of hundreds of murdered Albanians, which the its predecessors had buried within the perimeter of a police training camp near Belgrade, in an apparent attempt to conceal the atrocities committed in the 1999 war in Kosovo. But not one indictment has yet been brought against the perpetrators.


Mafia-style shootings and clashes in Belgrade streets have claimed dozens of lives. There was even an apparent attempt on the life of the prime minister.


Gangs in Surcin and Zemun wage open warfare, killing one another and continuing their propaganda war through the media, accusing one another of being responsible for political assassinations and robberies.


One major event was the recent discovery of two factories in Belgrade where the mafia was manufacturing illegal drugs. Two million tablets were found along with huge quantities of chemical substances for making the drugs, with a total value of 10 million euros.


But the find, many people suspect, only came as a result of an initiative by the American drug enforcement agency. Acting in concert with the Serbian police, they closed the factories, thought to have been the biggest centre for the manufacture of illegal substances in Europe.


How long can the peaceful coexistence between the mafia, government and war criminals remain? I believe that it can't continue for much longer.


The West is finally stepping up its demands for Djindjic to hand over such key indicted war criminals as Ratko Mladic. It wants him to deal harder with the mafia, especially now that he has sidelined Kostunica, while his only opponent in parliament, the Serbian Radical Party leader, Vojislav Seselj, has gone to The Hague.


The problem for Djindjic is that in confronting the forces he has tolerated for so long, he could find out that they actually exert more power than him.


Gordana Igric is IWPR's Balkans Project Manager.


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