Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mira Faces Stambolic Murder Allegations

Milosevic's wife is suspected of masterminding the abduction and murder of one of his bitterest political rivals.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Mirjana Markovic, wife of Slobodan Milosevic, is suspected of involvement in the murder of former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic, whose remains were discovered last week.


An international arrest warrant may soon be issued against Markovic, the leader of the former ruling Yugoslav United Left, who is said to have been living with her son Marko in Moscow for a number of weeks.


Markovic, widely known as Mira, dismissed the accusation as a "vile untruth", in a fax to a Montenegrin newspaper.


The development follows the dramatic solving of one of Serbia's most enduring political mysteries - the disappearance and presumed murder of Stambolic, Serbia's president from 1986-1987.


Interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic told a March 28 press conference, the day Stambolic's remains were discovered, that the motive for the murder was political and added that those suspected of ordering it - namely Milosevic and Markovic - would be interrogated, though he did not say when this was likely to happen.


The former Yugoslav president, who is standing trial on war crimes charges at The Hague tribunal, had previously refused to speak to Serbian public prosecutors who wished to question him on alleged abuses of power while in office.


But he has now told the tribunal that he would agree to see investigators from Belgrade who wish to question him over Stambolic's murder, dismissing the allegations against his wife as an attempt to put pressure on him through his family.


The Stambolic mystery was solved following the murder of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic on March 12.


In the aftermath of that assassination, the authorites declared a state of emergency and cracked down hard on organised crime, arresting nearly 2,000 alleged gangsters in the first fortnight.


Mihajlovic told the media that a confession by one of those detained in these swoops led to the discovery of Stambolic's remains and linked his killing and that of Djindjic to secret police officers in the Special Operations Unit, JSO, also known as Red Berets. The suspect revealed that Stambolic had been kidnapped on August 25, 2000, while jogging in the Kosutnjak park, and killed that same day.


Five Red Berets accused of carrying out the abduction and murder are now being held in custody.


All Belgrade-based TV stations broadcast police footage of the exhumation of Stambolic's body from a lime pit in Iriski Venac, on the slopes of the Fruska Gora mountain, near the northern city of Novi Sad. The video clearly showed his remains, parts of his sportswear and the sports shoes he wore to go jogging.


"He was executed with two bullets on the same day he was abducted, and was buried in a previously-prepared pit," said Mihajlovic, who declined to reveal the names of the alleged assassins claiming that this was "in the interest of the ongoing investigation".


The interior minister said the assassination was organised by Radomir Markovic, Milosevic's secret police chief from 1998-2001, who is currently serving a seven-year prison term for his part in the October 1999 murders of four senior Serbian Renewal Movement officials who were close associates of Milosevic's political rival Vuk Draskovic.


On March 30, the Serbian police announced that Milorad "Legija" Lukovic - a prime suspect in the slaying of Djindjic - was also implicated in the murder of Stambolic.


The police claim that Lukovic, who commanded the JSO from 1996-2001, paid the five Red Berets a total of 50,000 euro for carrying out the abduction and murder of the former president.


A day later, Zarko Korac, Serbian deputy president, alleged that the commander of the now-disbanded Red Berets, Dusan "Gumar" Maricic, was directly involved in the killing.


Investigations into Stambolic's disappearance had been more or less at a standstill. The case looked fated to remain unsolved until the mafia crackdown.


The Milosevic regime showed no interest in trying to unravel the mystery - with the state-controlled media only announcing the disappearance six days after Stambolic went missing.


Even after Milosevic was overthrown in October 2000, the police made little progress in their investigations. The only piece of evidence to emerge came in the form of an eye-witness who saw Stambolic resting at the side of the jogging path before being dragged into a white van and driven away.


The turning point in the investigation came at the end of January 2003, during a clash between Serbia's two most powerful organised crime gangs - the Surcin and Zemun mafia, who take their names from the two western Belgrade suburbs in which they are based.


Ljubisa "Cume" Buha, long believed to be the leader of the Surcin clan, fell out with his former friend Lukovic and publically accused him of involvement in Stambolic's murder.


Buha told Belgrade newspaper Blic on January 23 that Milosevic, Markovic and Lukovic were all involved in the former president's death. "Legija himself told me that Stambolic was executed immediately [after the kidnapping], that they finished him off. I don't know the reasons," he claimed in the article. "Legija only said, 'It had to be done - because of Slobo' (Milosevic)."


According to information from sources close to the police, Buha will now appear as a protected witness in the trials of organised crime suspects.


Although he presented several details which subsequently turned out to be inaccurate, Buha was the first to publically state that Stambolic had been executed immediately after his abduction, and that five Red Berets had been responsible.


Confirming that the motive was political, Mihajlovic told the media, "The objective was to remove Stambolic as a dangerous potential candidate in the [September 2000] presidential elections.This clearly points the finger at those persons who might be the instigators, or who commissioned this crime."


Stambolic was proposed as a candidate in the election in which Milosevic was ultimately defeated by Vojislav Kostunica, but his nomination was rejected by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition which eventually took power.


At the time, Milosevic's circle feared that Stambolic might choose to enter the race anyway, taking much-needed votes from the ruling regime.


Following the discloures about Stambolic's death, Mirjana Markovic's daughter Marija Milosevic confirmed that her mother is currently in Moscow with Marko, who fled there some time ago to evade the Serbian judiciary.


Police here have since announced that they would issue an international arrest warrant unless Markovic reported to the police for questioning.


The popular daily paper Vecernje Novosti wrote on March 31 that Markovic's departure for Moscow could be linked to the ongoing investigation into the Stambolic case.


Quoting one of her "closest associates", who preferred to remain anonymous, the title reported that Milosevic's wife had been warned that criminal charges could be brought against her in connection with the former president's disappearance.


Irrespective of whether she chooses to return to Belgrade to face questioning, sources close to the Serbian authorities believe that Moscow will not seek to offer Markovic protection.