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Serbia: Mafia Fights Back

Reported bid to kill premier regarded as opening shot in underworld war against the government.
By IWPR staff

An apparent bid to assassinate Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, is being viewed as a declaration of war by mafia gangs angered at his efforts to break their formidable hold on power.


A car taking Djindjic to Belgrade airport on February 21 narrowly missed collision with an Austrian-registered freight truck that abruptly swerved in front of it.


Only swift reaction by the premier's chauffeur averted a head-on crash. Police arrested the driver of the truck Dejan Milenkovic, aka Bugsy, who, they said, had a long criminal record.


Djindjic played down suggestions that the collision was an underworld bid to kill him, but he warned on February 23 that even if it had been, the fight against organised crime would continue.


The authorities say they are investigating the incident, but a journalist on state Radio Television Serbia, RTS, quoted police sources on February 22 as saying assassination was the aim.


Police charged Milenkovic with possessing counterfeit ID papers and stealing a vehicle. A judge ordered that he remain in custody, but he was released on bail late on February 24 after his lawyer Miodrag Gligorijevic argued that there was no legal justification for detaining him.


In an interview with IWPR, Gligorijevic categorically denied claims that his client had been involved in an attempt to assassinate the premier.


Milenkovic's release enraged the Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic who called for an urgent reform of the judiciary, telling IWPR that some judges "either don't know how to do their jobs or have some other motives."


In the RTS report on the road incident, which relied heavily on police sources, it was claimed that Milenkovic had been informed by mobile phone that the premier's convoy was approaching. The report said Bugsy used to belong to the Surcin gang but recently switched sides to join rival Zemun mobsters.


A truck was also used in an apparent bid in 1999 to assassinate Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO. Draskovic narrowly escaped serious injury, but four party officials were killed. The trial, which ended recently, blamed the Serbian secret police, long reported to be hand-in-glove with the mafia.


Mafia gangs, which sprang up under former president Slobodan Milosevic, have now grown so strong that some people believe they wield more power than the government. A senior police official told IWPR at the beginning of February that the Serbian authorities now have only two options - to come to grips with the gangsters or withdraw from office.


Under international and domestic pressure, Djindjic has introduced anti-mafia legislation, reshuffled the top brass of the secret police and issued public declarations that extraditions to The Hague war crimes tribunal would continue - many mobsters are thought to be war crimes suspects. However, the measures were widely seen as token.


Djindjic's government inherited a strong secret police apparatus - the Serbian state security, RDB. This organisation was built up under Milosevic and cooperated very closely with criminals with whom they worked to thwart the effects of international sanctions.


A well informed journalist on the Belgrade weekly Vreme, Jovan Dulovic, told a recent public debate entitled "Facing the Past" that the Serbian police and the underworld had entered an "unnatural marriage" during the Milosevic era and that the present authorities found this hard to break up. Dulovic recently testified against Milosevic at The Hague.


The RDB sided against Milosevic during his overthrow in October 2000. Three years later there have been no serious police reforms, while the Zemun and the Surcin gangs are thriving more than ever.


A Western diplomat recently told IWPR, "We had some sympathy for the prime minister but now it is time to do something because it is becoming obvious that the criminals and the war criminals are actually the same people."


During 2002, the mafia tightened its grip on the trade in drugs, arms and sex slaves. Gang warfare led to a series of violent incidents in which several underworld leaders were killed. The pattern was usually the same - gunmen in cars, usually Audis, rake their victims with automatic weapon fire and speed away.


Gang boss Sredoje Sljukic, aka Sljuka, and his brother Zoran were killed on a Belgrade highway on September 27. Jovan Guzijan Cuner, a powerful mobster, was murdered on the Zemun-Novi Sad road on October 5. Zeljko Skrba, who had close ties with Belgrade criminals and the Bosnian underworld, along with Nenad Batocanin, assistant chief of the VIP Security Department, were killed on November 26 near the Red Star soccer stadium.


None of these crimes have been solved.


A spectacular explosion in early January at Zemun Polje destroyed a company that apparently belonged to the leader of the Surcin gang. The incident roused widespread public alarm. The authorities claimed it was a terrorist attack but observers suggested it was a showdown between the Surcin and Zemun gangs.


Several months ago, Djindjic brought in a law on fighting organised crime, a move regarded by many as too weak. At the end of December, criminal law was amended to widen police powers and a protected witness category was introduced.


On January 23, Djindjic unexpectedly sacked Andrija Savic, head of Serbia's Security Information Agency, BIA, and his influential deputy Milorad Bracanovic.


At the same time, the premier went on television urging the Serbian police to step up their fight against the drugs mafia, which he said was gaining a dangerous influence over society.


In a joint operation on February 7, Serbian police and the American Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, discovered a drugs factory and illegal drugs laboratories in the towns of Stara Pazova, Nova Pazova and Simanovci. The police raided 35 buildings and seized over two million tablets containing synthetic drugs estimated to be worth more than 10 million euro.


Nowadays, said Djindjic, criminals were better equipped than the police and even had their own wiretapping networks.


The truth of this appeared to be borne out when the Belgrade magazine Identitet published the transcript of a conversation between Djindjic and his closest associates.


At this point, it is uncertain how the anti-mafia campaign will fare. The authorities, clearly are preparing for the worst. During the weekend, while Djindjic was away on business in Germany, his ministers were provided with additional personal security.


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