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

Serbia on the Brink

The murder of prime minister Zoran Djindjic threatens to cause civil strife and chaos in Serbia.
By IWPR staff

The authorities have begun rounding up alleged mafia members following the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic, which has brought Serbia to the brink of catastrophe.


Around 200 mafia suspects were arrested and two leading former security officials were under interrogation Thursday, a day after Djindjic was shot by two gunmen. He died soon afterwards at the emergency unit of the main Belgrade hospital.


Warrants have also been issued for the arrests of 23 people suspected of involvement in the assassination.


A government statement broadcast on all media Wednesday night claimed the killing was the work of the so-called Zemun gang, whom western governments had been urging Djindjic to move against. Deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic, now acting premier, blamed the murder on "those who have used assassinations in the past to prevent the development and democratisation of Serbia and to isolate Serbia again, turning it into the realm of mobsters".


The fatal wounds, one in the stomach the other in the back, came from large calibre sniper rifles fired from different locations, according to unofficial sources. The Belgrade media carried accounts from eye-witnesses who claimed they had seen two men with a sniper rifle and a pistol driving away at high speed from a building about 100 metres from the government office Djindjic had been entering.


No official accounts were available from the police, who sealed off the centre of Belgrade. In the evening, acting Serbian president Natasa Micic declared a state of emergency, which will remain in force until the assassins are hunted down and arrested. The authorities did not specify whether the suspected gangsters detained Thursday were members of the Zemun mafia. The two ex-security officers under interrogation are Jovica Stanisic, onetime state security chief, and Frenki Simatovic, the founder of the notorious Red Berets.


The republic’s constitution does not specify the exact terms of a state of emergency, but the president of the Serbian constitutional court Slobodan Vucetic has already said "some civil rights and freedoms could be restricted”.


Djindjic had already survived one attempt on his life in February, when an alleged member of the Zemun gang narrowly missed hitting his convoy with a truck driven at high speed.


Western diplomats had long been urging the Djindjic government to crack down on the Belgrade underworld and various armed units, notably the Special Operations Unit, JSO. Better known as the Red Berets, it was active throughout the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.


They have continued to cast a menacing shadow over Serbian politics, especially since Belgrade began cooperating with The Hague. Western pressure to deal with JSO increased after two members were convicted in January this year for their participation in a road traffic incident in October 1999, which killed four officials from the Serbian Renewal Movement.


"I wonder how you can expect to integrate into the European mainstream while you still have mafiosi and war criminals operating special armed units in your house," British ambassador Charles Crawford said in an interview with Belgrade magazine Nedeljni Telegraf, published on the morning of the assassination.


Crawford went on to remark that The Hague tribunal has "extensive evidence of what they were doing", confirming the western view that the Red Berets have worked to obstruct extraditions to the war crimes court.


The Zemun gang, so-called because one of its suspected leaders Dusan "Siptar" Spasovic owns a huge villa and shopping mall in the Belgrade suburb of Zemun, is thought to have around 200 members. Spasovic's partner is Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, whom Djindjic dismissed as commander of the JSO in spring 2001, but who still retained an influence over the unit.


Lukovic recently publicly denounced Djindjic as unpatriotic for handing over prominent "freedom fighters" to The Hague.


The premier moved to diminish Lukovic's persistent influence on the JSO, by dismissing two senior officials in the state security service who are known to retain close links with the Red Berets’ former commander.


Lukovic and Spasovic were among those the police want to detain in connection with the killing of the premier.


Some observers are arguing that the current state of emergency will play directly into the hands of those forces, which Djindjic was trying to bring under control.


"The state of emergency will best suit those groups whose interests were most closely affiliated with Slobodan Milosevic - the army and the police," said Vladimir Gligorov, an influential analyst from the Viennese Institute for International Economy, who believes that the government was sending out a signal of "insecurity and fear".


Although no one was prepared to make an open statement so soon after the death of the premier, high-ranking politicians and police were indicating off the record that a crackdown on the mafia would ensue immediately. "We must either confront and eradicate the underworld, or admit that the mafia rules this country," a police official told IWPR.