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Serbia: Government Facing Mafia Dilemma

The assassination of Bosko Buha will force the authorities to confront the underworld or admit that they are controlled by it.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The assassination of General Bosko Buha, the third most important man in the Serbian police force, represents the mafia's most serious challenge to the authorities since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic.

Buha, 42, was shot seven times early on Monday, June 10, in the car park of Belgrade's Hotel Yugoslavia.

In the past, and under international pressure, the government expressed a desire to combat mafia influence in theory while avoiding a showdown in practice.

The murder will force the authorities to define their attitude towards the criminals whose grip was all-powerful during the Milosevic era. The government must take serious action or admit that the mafia controls Serbia.

Buha, who was appointed deputy head of Serbia's public security service at the end of last year, spent the last hours of his life with friends in a floating restaurant on the Danube next to the hotel.

While the police have revealed no details of his dining companions, the Danube's riverboat restaurants have a reputation as meeting places for Belgrade's underworld.

After parting with his friends in the car park, Buha was about to open the door of his Nissan car when he was shot. It is believed that two men were involved in the attack and immediately fled the scene.

Although his companions and a traffic police patrol were in the car park at the time, they fell to the ground as soon as they heard the gunfire and did not catch sight of the assassins.

However, a taxi driver who saw one of the attackers shoot the police chief told IWPR that the man was aged around 20, was wearing a leather jacket but no face mask, and had opened fire with a Kalashnikov rifle.

Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic told a press conference on Monday that the authorities would leave no stone unturned in the hunt for the killers.

In what may have been the largest Serbian police operation in several years, special squads raided flats and homes all over the capital and detained dozens of suspected criminals.

Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said a motive for the murder had yet to be determined. It may not be easy to establish, for although Buha's career had its share of turbulence, he is not known to have come into conflict with any group in particular.

Several theories have already been put forward. One is that it was a revenge killing by Milosevic supporters angry that Buha had sided with the opposition when the former regime was toppled.

Buha came to Serbia in 1991 as a refugee from Croatia and was appointed commander of the Belgrade police brigade in 1998. He led the brigade in Kosovo from June of that year and returned to Belgrade 12 months later after sustaining light injuries.

In late September 2000, Milosevic sent Buha and his brigade to Kolubara to crack down on a miners' strike that marked a crucial step in the preparations for the protests that were to bring down the government.

He disobeyed Milosevic's orders and the unit refused to suppress the demonstrators on October 5, the day Milosevic was toppled.

A second theory is that Buha was eliminated to prevent him from testifying against Milosevic's at The Hague tribunal. Some police sources claim Buha knew that the court possessed compromising evidence against him, namely a radio recording of a communication between himself and Sreten Lukic, the public security chief who commanded the police force in Kosovo from 1998 to 1999.

It is possible that circles close to Milosevic and Serbia's anti-Hague lobby murdered Buha because he knew too much and had agreed to share this information with prosecutors.

However, his career was in decline before his death. After being appointed to the prestigious post of police chief in Belgrade immediately after Milosevic's fall, he was effectively sidelined by his appointment as deputy chief of public security.

Serbia's deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, said on Tuesday that Buha had been dismissed as city police chief because of reports that he had been in contact "with certain [underworld] groups". But these links had never been proved.

In December last year, just before his career began to falter, Buha issued a sharp statement to the Belgrade Nedeljni Telegraf in which he presented himself as a determined foe of the mafia.

He said five large organised crime groups were active in Belgrade and their bosses were mainly involved in illegal road building and other construction. He added that the mafia had offered him and other politicians "various services, money, and even files that would help them compromise their political rivals".

The new government marked its first months in office with an aggressive fight against crime, but the danger of tackling the underworld soon led it to soften its attitude.

As a result, while mafia bosses invested some of their unlawfully gained money in legal businesses, they also held onto some of their old enterprises. The tax authorities believe around half of Serbia's financial transactions pass through illegal channels.

The government's willingness and ability to track down Buha's assassins will show its true attitude towards the underworld. If that resolve falters, it will be a clear indication that some things have not changed since the fall of Milosevic.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor-in-chief of Blic News magazine and a regular IWPR contributor.

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