The assassination of Zoran Djindjic

About the author
Dejan Djokic is lecturer in history at Goldsmiths College, London. He is the author of Elusive Compromise: A History of Interwar Yugoslavia (C Hurst, 2007).

The assassination of Serbia’s prime minister Zoran Djindjic came as a shock to Serbs and the outside world alike. Djindjic was killed by a sniper while entering a government building in central Belgrade around 11:45 (central European time), on Wednesday 12 March. A state of emergency was declared and two men were arrested almost immediately in connection with the assassination.

Serbia today is in a state of genuine sorrow, uncertainty, and fear. Djindjic’s dynamism, energy and determination are unmatched by any other Serbian leader and it is hard to see who is going to fill the gap left by his tragic death. Most Serbs know this, even those who never liked or voted for Djindjic.

Indeed, Zoran Djindjic was not a popular figure. A number of factors contributed to this. He carried out uncomfortable jobs such as introducing radical economic and political reforms, and sending former president Slobodan Milosevic to face war crimes charges in The Hague; he was seen by many as too pragmatic. Yet, even though an attempt on Djindjic’s life was made only a few weeks ago, the tragic news has come as a surprise and a genuine shock to many Serbs and non-Serbs.

Serbia: mafia and politics

Who was behind the assassination? In the immediate aftermath, virtually all analysts agree that Serbia’s powerful underworld is responsible. In late December 2002, Djindjic’s government offered improved protection to witnesses and informants, in an attempt to make the struggle against organised crime more effective. Only a few weeks ago the Serbian police closed down two factories near Belgrade because it had discovered they were producing drugs. Similar measures against those involved in cigarette smuggling and sex trafficking were taken in recent months.

It had been known for some time that Djindjic’s life was in danger because of these clashes with the mafia. When he narrowly escaped death in a road accident on 21 February – Vuk Draskovic, once the main opposition leader, was nearly killed the same way by Milosevic’s agents several years ago – rumours began circulating around Belgrade that the mafia had united behind a plot to get rid of Djindjic.

But one of the legacies of the Milosevic era is precisely that it is very hard to distinguish between the mafia, paramilitaries and radical elements within the army. At the moment this text is being typed, news from Serbia reports that Milorad Lukovic (also known as ‘Legija’), the notorious and somewhat mysterious former leader of Milosevic’s special troops, was behind the assassination. If this is true – and it seems very likely – then the Serbian authorities will face an enemy much more dangerous than a Soprano-style mafia clan.

Legija famously refused to obey Milosevic’s order to attack the anti-government demonstrations in October 2000. Moreover, he switched sides and joined the then-opposition led by Djindjic and Vojislav Kostunica, until recently the president of Yugoslavia. It is widely believed that Djindjic was responsible for Legija’s change of heart, but soon after the ‘October revolution’ rumours began circulating that Djindjic’s links with Legija – as well as with several Belgrade mafia clans – were uncomfortably close.

When in recent months Djindjic turned against his former (alleged) allies, Legija amongst them, it was clear that this was going to be the late prime minister’s most difficult battle since the one he waged against Milosevic. Unfortunately, unlike the battle against Milosevic, he has lost this one. It is to be hoped that Djindjic’s successors will win the war against the underworld.

A vacuum of power

Who will be the successors? Nebojsa Covic, the deputy prime minister, now takes over the job in an acting capacity. But a huge power vacuum has been created. Either personally or through his allies, Djindjic held most of the key positions within current Serbian political institutions. Without him, will these hold?

The only positive element in a bleak political situation is that the extremist opposition is without a leader, too. Not only Milosevic, but now also Vojislav Seselj – Serbia’s cross between Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Jean-Marie Le Pen, are at The Hague, facing charges for war crimes.

It is possible that Kostunica will again emerge as the most credible option for Serbia, but this would only benefit the country if he manages to achieve a rapprochement with Djindjic’s Democratic Party. A military coup is another possibility, but as time passes it seems decreasingly likely.

Prequels of a political murder

While people await the outcome of this tragic event with some anxiety, it is perhaps natural for a historian to be tempted to put things into a wider perspective. History, of course, does not repeat itself, but sometimes historical analogies may be useful, if for no other reason than to escape from the painful reality of the present.

When King Alexander Obrenovic and Queen Draga of Serbia were assassinated in June 1903 by a group of army officers, the ‘civilised’ world was shocked. Most European countries suspended diplomatic relations with Serbia. Although they soon reestablished official links with Belgrade – except Britain and the Netherlands, which did not do so until 1906 – western public opinion strongly condemned the regicide.

The American press argued that it was part of ‘Slavic nature’ to murder leaders and throw them from a terrace (as happened to the unfortunate royal couple); the London Times described Serbia as a ‘land of assassinations’, secret societies, military conspiracies and Balkan intrigues. When I researched the topic as a student of contemporary history at London University, I treated these statements as good examples of Edward Said’s Orientalism stretching beyond the Middle East, all the way to the Balkans.

Of course, I knew that the 1903 murder wasn’t the only one in Serbia’s, or Yugoslavia’s, modern history: every sixth-former knows (or should know) about Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.

There are lesser-known examples. The assassination of Prince Michael Obrenovic of Serbia in 1868 has not been explained to this day. King Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia was murdered in 1934 by a Macedonian revolutionary in the pay of Croat Ustasha while on a state visit to France. A more recent example is Ivan Stambolic, the former Serbian president and once Slobodan Milosevic’s best friend, who is presumed dead after disappearing in the summer of 2000. (Milosevic and his wife, Mira Markovic, are believed to have been involved).

Of course, even the US has lost several presidents through assassination, not to mention other European, and supposedly civilised, countries whose leading politicians and monarchs have been assassinated at one time or another over the last few centuries. Yet, the tragic death of Zoran Djindjic has not only stunned and saddened me deeply – it has also made me question whether there was more than simply a Balkan variant of Orientialism in the writings of the US and British press in the aftermath of the 1903 regicide.

A role for the west

Let us hope that Zoran Djindjic’s tragic death will lead to a genuine determination on behalf of the Serbian authorities to destroy the mafia and the remnants of the former regime. It is more than a mere phrase to affirm that Serbia urgently needs to break with its recent past before it can move forward. Djindjic knew this and he paid a heavy price.

However, if all the ‘progressive’ groups join forces, above all the government and the pro-Kostunica camp, perhaps some good may come out of this tragedy. And the west, despite its focus on Iraq, must do everything it can to help Serbia. A creative, engaged and sensitive approach by the west would do much to help resolve a highly volatile and dangerous post-assassination crisis.