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

Serbia's slain prime minister was never afraid to speak his mind.

Serbia’s slain prime minister was never afraid to speak his mind.
By Alison Freebairn

Serbia’s murdered prime minister may have won plaudits in the West for his democratic reforms and fierce opposition to Slobodan Milosevic - whom he helped to overthrow and then extradited to The Hague war crimes tribunal - but at home Zoran Djindjic was often grudgingly respected and viewed as a pragmatist first and foremost.


A tireless campaigner for democratic change, Djindjic’s rise to power was overshadowed by his toleration of the very same organised crime gangs that he later vowed to break up.


Like many risky decisions he made, the recent move to crack down on organised crime - which ultimately cost him his life - was intended to rehabilitate Serbia and its people in the eyes of the international community.


Djindjic – the son of a Yugoslav People’s Army officer – was born in the Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac on August 1, 1952, and showed early signs of his self-belief in a skirmish with the authorities while still at high school.


When Tito was declared Yugoslavia’s president for life, the young Djindjic wanted to know why. His outspoken attitude horrified his teachers, and he was promptly expelled.


He continued his education at the University of Belgrade, where he studied philosophy. His experiences as a student only strengthened his anti-regime stance, and he further fell foul of the authorities in 1974, the year of his graduation.


He had attempted to organise an independent non-communist student union with colleagues from Croatia and Slovenia. But the authorities crushed this fledgling movement, and Djindjic was jailed for his part in organising it.


Upon his release, he left Yugoslavia to continue his studies in Germany, eventually graduating with a PhD in philosophy.


It was during his time in Germany that Djindjic began to hone his organisational skills, supplementing his income by building a clothing firm.


He spent much of the Eighties in Europe, transforming his business into a thriving enterprise, which imported machine tools from communist East Germany into the Yugoslav federation.


He maintained his interest in politics during this time, contributing to many debates on the country’s future, and eventually returned to his homeland in 1989, taking up a post as lecturer at Novi Sad’s philosophy faculty while acting as a senior consultant at the Centre for Philosophy and Social Theory in Belgrade.


He also joined a group of fellow intellectuals and dissidents to form the Democratic Party, in opposition to the country’s then president, Slobodan Milosevic.


The party disintegrated under the weight of conflicting personalities, and Djindjic joined forces with some of the younger activists to form Yugoslavia’s first pro-European opposition movement.


Their anti-Milosevic campaign picked up momentum during the early Nineties, culminating in a three-month long series of demonstrations in central Belgrade in late 1996. The protests were sparked by the regime’s attempt to annul the result of municipal elections, which had seen the opposition Zajedno (Together) coalition triumph in many major cities.


Djindjic linked up with Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Party in an attempt to force Milosevic to back down. Their passionate appeals resulted in hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets until the regime relented and let the election results stand.


His hard work was rewarded in 1997, when he was appointed the first non-communist mayor of Belgrade for more than four decades, but this triumph was short-lived.


Less than six months later, Draskovic changed allegiances, joining with the Serbian Radical Party and the Socialist Party to vote Djindjic out of office.


Despite this setback, he kept piling the pressure on Milosevic, becoming more and more outspoken in his criticism of the regime.


These tactics carried a high risk, however, and he was forced to flee Serbia for neighbouring Montenegro during the NATO bombing campaign in 1998, after being tipped off that his name was high on a list of assassination targets drawn up by the regime.


After the NATO bombing successfully ended Milosevic’s Kosovo campaign in May 1999, Djindjic returned to Belgrade and began to mobilise support for a new opposition push, forcing early elections in an attempt to depose the president.


However, a lack of cohesion among the various opposition groups did not help their campaign, and no amount of anti-regime rhetoric could loosen Milosevic’s grip on power.


But Djindjic refused to give up or back down, and his tenacity resulted in the formation of a workable coalition – the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS - and the emergence of a credible presidential candidate in Vojislav Kostunica.


When Milosevic called elections in September 2000, DOS was ready for him. Djindjic worked tirelessly behind the scenes to promote Kostunica and motivate the coalition, resulting in an emphatic win for the presidential candidate.


Milosevic was forced to admit defeat. Kostunica was installed as federal president, while Djindjic was elected Serbian prime minister.


The road to reform was a slow and painful one, and progress was impeded by the fact that Djindjic and Kostunica – having finally achieved their goals – became entrenched in a bitter power struggle and at times appeared to be more interested in disrupting each other’s plans than actually working to improve the lives of ordinary Serbs.


In spite of this, Djindjic was able to assemble an impressive team of economic and political experts and introduce a number of important reforms. Under the guidance of the European Union, he worked with his old friend Milo Djukanovic, president of Montenegro, to abolish the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and create the looser union of Serbia and Montenegro.


This stabilised the region following fears that the pro-independence Djukanovic may try to take Montenegro out of the alliance.


In spite of his achievements, Djindjic was something of a prophet without honour in his own land. While he was attractive and eloquent, he was also perceived as arrogant and his pro-western stance and determination to press ahead with uncomfortable – but vital – reforms meant that he never enjoyed the same popularity at home as his rival Kostunica.


The prime minister’s cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal also made him deeply unpopular with certain elements within Serbian society.


He was instrumental in the capture and extradition of Milosevic, who is currently standing trial on charges of genocide, and was outspoken in his determination to round up further prominent war crimes suspects and send them to the tribunal.


But, like so many of Djindjic’s actions while in office, this was a pragmatic decision. Cooperation with The Hague was certain to please the international community and pave the way to much-needed foreign aid.


It also eased Serbia’s re-entry into the European and international community after nearly a decade in the wilderness. Djindjic was a popular leader abroad, and earned respect and praise from many western leaders who saw his strength and intelligence as a beacon of hope for the war-torn region.


Yet, at home, his talent for making deals and tactical savvy often counted against him, as did his habit of outmanoeuvring coalition opponents and his toleration of mafia activity.


DOS had overthrown Milosevic with the assistance – tacit or otherwise - of many of the criminal groups which had been created and nurtured under the former regime.


This assistance came with a very high price. Now beholden to those bosses who had helped him to power, Djindjic had stated that he would never extradite them to face charges at the tribunal. But he soon came under increasing pressure to do just that.


Djindjic was well aware of the consequences these actions could bring. Mafia-style killings had become more commonplace in Serbia over the past two years, and a near-miss traffic incident only last month was later classed as an attempt on his life.


But he refused to let this threat slow him down. The dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the creation of the new state of Serbia and Montenegro left Kostunica without a job, and effectively ended the two mens’ bitter feud.


This should have left the way clear for Djindjic to continue to modernise his country and ease it closer to full Euro-Atlantic integration. Sadly he was not allowed to do so.


Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor.


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