COMMENT: Where Is Ivan?

Bitter friends and family accuse the authorities of failing to investigate a crime at the heart of an evil system.

COMMENT: Where Is Ivan?

Bitter friends and family accuse the authorities of failing to investigate a crime at the heart of an evil system.

Wednesday, 29 August, 2001

"Thanks to these Serbian gentlemen, Ivan's blood is unified with the blood of the children murdered in Srebrenica, with that of Vukovar and Sarajevan children killed by sniper fire. I see Ivan in these children. Ivan is one of them. Killed children, one whole nation of children."

In a speech this May, marking the launch of a book on Ivan Stambolic, the Yugoslav leader who disappeared one year ago this weekend, academic Radomir Konstantinovic mocked the culture of impunity which allowed him to be kidnapped. It is this same culture, he said, which allows the new authorities to avoid the truth about a crime that goes to the heart of the system inherited from Slobodan Milosevic - and still fundamentally unchanged.

"We shall see," the new Serbian authorities say. "We are looking," they tell us. "We will find him," official Belgrade says reassuringly to Ivan's friends and family.

We are still waiting.

Ivan was a communist leader of the old Yugoslavia, a former president of Serbia and a fervent anti-nationalist. At the beginning of the decade he was politically used, and finally possibly eliminated, by his former best friend and right hand, Milosevic.

Stambolic's mere existence represented a poke in the eye of Milosevic's regime - a reminder that there was once a different Serbia, before Slobo. But the new authorities, too, seem eager to escape the past as quickly as possible. Nationalists themselves, they have little interest in this anti-nationalist symbol.

When earlier this year the Committee for the Release of Ivan Stambolic sent a letter to Vojislav Kostunica calling on him to solve the riddle of his disappearance, the Yugoslav president replied by referring to Stambolic as a "former communist official". By raising a question so utterly irrelevant, the president raised a question himself: Is the kidnap a criminal act, or just the continuation of the struggle between former and current communists?

We who were close to him must live with this mystery. We must constantly pose the question to the new regime: Who kidnapped Ivan Stambolic on August 25, 2000, in front of the Golf Restaurant in the Belgrade park Kosutnjak? And why?

Who was the driver of the white Volkswagen into which Ivan was pushed? Who were the two armed kidnappers who forced him into the vehicle at gunpoint as he rested after his usual morning jog?

Stambolic was Milosevic's political mentor, predicting early on that he would have "a brilliant political career". In the 1980s the pair were inseparable.

Stambolic's political son destroyed his patron at the infamous eighth session of the Serbian Communists, in September 1987, the putsch that brought Milosevic to power. Ever since, the two were sworn ideological enemies. Milosevic used absolute power, hysterical nationalism and populist rallies to shake the former Yugoslavia, and ultimately replace Stambolic as Serbian president in 1989.

All of Stambolic's predictions turned out to be true: that Milosevic would wage war; that Milosevic's ambitions placed all of Yugoslavia at risk; that the Serb nationalism Milosevic stirred up would lead to tragedy of enormous proportions.

Nonetheless, Serbia closed ranks behind its new leader. Mass rallies, war drums, popular support for the fascist project of a "Greater Serbia", preparations for war in Croatia and Bosnia - all this made it impossible for anyone to explain in simple words to a nation in a trance where Milosevic was leading them.

In the course of those war-plagued years, Stambolic remained head of the Jubmes bank (until they took that away from him, too), where he specialised in developing co-operation with former Yugoslav republics. Rarely did he appear in public, and he was not granted space in the Serbian state media because of his utter opposition to everything Milosevic was doing at the time.

In the midst of the war in Bosnia, Stambolic appeared in Sarajevo under siege - an honourable and courageous gesture which conveyed much more than thousands of shallow statements ever could. In Belgrade, he associated with the anti-war circles, and visited the Centre for Cultural Decontamination, an alternative venue for theatre and debate and a gathering place for Milosevic opponents. He appeared occasionally at round-tables and promotions, and Radio B-92 published his book, The Road to Nowhere, detailing the horrors of Milosevic's policy.

Stambolic showed no more visible signs of political ambition - in a devastated country firmly in Milosevic's grip, he was a realist and knew he stood little chance.

But his friends didn't share his view. As soon as Milosevic announced, in late July 2000, early federal and presidential elections, to be held on September 24, rumours about a presidential candidate who might defeat Milosevic began circulating.

Stambolic's name came up as a possible contender in the presidential race. Given that the Democratic Opposition of Serbia had already put forward Vojislav Kostunica, it was clear to Ivan's friends that only nationalists stood a chance.

Then it happened. Just when it became clear that Ivan Stambolic would not run for president, he was kidnapped.

Did Milosevic take the opportunity finally to rid himself of the shadow of his political father? Did the kidnap grow from the animosity harboured by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, who has never forgiven anyone for anything?

Was it a manoeuvre by one of the many secret services eager to ingratiate themselves with the boss, Milosevic? Or was the kidnap a warning to the entire opposition of what could happen to them if they truly tried to win the elections?

All these explanations are possible, but the truth is that no one knows anything. There is no trace.

Milosevic's police dedicated scant effort to resolving the case prior to October 5, when Milosevic was ousted. After the changes, ministers promised to get to the bottom of the affair. But intriguingly, the same police force, with just a few new faces at the top, has demonstrated little more enthusiasm to launch a comprehensive investigation to discover what happened.

As long as this case remains unsolved, Serbia will continue to live with a system inherited from Milosevic - a black hole of impunity, absorbing crimes and atrocities, propaganda and ethnic cleansing. And the people who fail to find him now share complicity - if not directly in the crime then in the governing system and tribal instinct to defend their own, no matter what.

"The basis of indifference towards Ivan was in his uncompromising anti-nationalism," Professor Konstantinovic argues. The very people worried about the prosecution of Serbian war criminals are the same ones who display such indifference towards solving the crime against Stambolic. Nationalism and impunity are firmly linked.

"Where does this complicity with evil come from, this hellish identification with the criminals, this national defence expressed through their protection?" he asks bitterly.

Petar Lukovic is IWPR project manager in Serbia.

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