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Comment: What Now for Serbia and Montenegro?

The country risks turning into a pariah state once more, unless the authorities confront the mafia.
By Gordana Igric

Over the last few weeks, it’s been the only question on people’s lips in Serbia - who will triumph in the battle between the mafia and Zoran Djindjic? The answer came on Wednesday. Now the government of the slain premier is in a race against time. If it doesn’t strike hard and emphatically at the core of the powerful, rich and well armed leftovers of Milosevic’s regime, Serbia and Montenegro will turn into a gangster state, with no future.


This is the last chance for the country to dispose of this mafia - comprising former and present state security and police officials, special forces, mobsters and war criminals - established by the former Belgrade strongman to smuggle, steal and murder.


The immediate priority is to arrest Milorad “Legija” Lukovic - former commander of the special police unit the Red Berets - and around 200 members of the powerful Zemun criminal gang, who currently pose the greatest danger to the state.


Next, the Red Berets themselves, the majority of whose members are loyal to Legija, should be broken up, and the hundreds of law enforcement officials suspected of involvement in crimes must be dismissed and put on trial.


This may lead to violence and bloodshed as they will undoubtedly resist, but if the authorities don’t act the current power vacuum will be filled by the mafia, putting a halt to economic reforms and cooperation with The Hague - crucial if Serbia is to receive more international financial assistance - and the republic will become a pariah state once more.


The reason Serbia is facing such turmoil at present is because the Milosevic system was not dismantled after his overthrow two and a half years ago.


It should not be forgotten that the tormentor of the Balkans would still be in power if mafia figures hadn’t jumped ship and supported Serbia’s new rulers who, in turn, effectively granted them an amnesty.


As a result, the underworld has flourished over the last few years and the government has done nothing to curb its activities. In fact, Djindjic was even accused by rivals of involvement with certain criminal groups.


But with economic aid to Serbia and Montenegro predicated on the extradition of war criminals and organised crime jeopardising its European Union accession bid, Djindjic was latterly forced to act against the very people who help bring him to power. The premier broke the pact he made with the mafia – and paid the price.


So what does the future hold for Serbia and Montenegro?


Nebojsa Covic, Serbian government vice president, has become the republic’s acting prime minister and could emerge as a future leader.


He’s seen as a capable, pragmatic and strong-willed politician, having played a significant role in the defeat of Milosevic and skilfully resolved the crisis in southern Serbia – the latter winning him western sympathies.


But his ability to face down the mafia, which he must, will be limited by a weak judiciary and police force whose loyalty is in question. The latter has not been seriously reformed since Milosevic was ousted and many believe some of its chiefs continue to take orders from their former masters.


Realistically, there is only one police unit, the newly formed 1,000-strong Serbian gendarmerie, capable of taking on the likes of the Zemun gang and the Red Berets, but it is currently engaged in keeping the peace in south Serbia, and it’s unclear whether it would be drafted in.


With the odd exception, the government is aware that it can’t trust its law enforcers, which is why it called for a state of emergency following Djindjic’s assassination, allowing the army of Serbia and Montenegro to assist with internal security.


The armed forces of the new state, controlled by a coalition of parties that were allied to the slain premier, are far more likely to deal with matter at hand. While there are some old-fashioned communist-style generals still around, the military has not been criminalised and corrupted to the same degree as the police force and probably can be relied upon to carry out the government’s decisions.


Serbia and Montenegro stands at a critical crossroad. If the security forces round up the mafia ringleaders and manage to dismantle the Red Berets, then the country can finally put the past behind it and get on with the task of becoming a progressive, democratic European state. If they fail, then the state’s prospects are bleak to say the least.


First of all, cooperation with The Hague will come to a grinding halt and, as a consequence, economic aid will dry up.


To date, Djindjic has been the only politician prepared to risk accusations of treachery by extraditing war crimes suspects to The Hague. His successor is unlikely to do the same unless the indictees and their supporters are subdued.


Washington has conditioned a new tranche of financial support on the delivery of General Ratko Mladic by June 15. The EU, meanwhile, has threatened economic sanctions unless there is more cooperation with the tribunal and has made it plain that the persistence of organised crime in the region will jeopardise its prospects of European integration.


Secondly, economic reforms are likely to come to an end because they will not be seen as a priority.


Djindjic did try to push through changes, but squabbling with his rival Vojislav Kostunica meant the process was painfully slow. And now, with the authorities trying to tackle the mafia and preparing for new elections, it is unlikely to rank high on the political agenda.


Gordana Igric is IWPR’s Balkan project manager.


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