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Remembering Zoran Djindjic

Ten years ago, on March 12, 2003, a bullet deprived Serbia of a true visionary. Zoran Djindjic’s leadership and vision was crucial for the nation to move forward from its war ravaged past towards democracy.

Djindjic speaking at Harvard University in 2002. Flickr/Kokkalis_program. Some rights reserved.Djindjic speaking at Harvard University in 2002. Flickr/Kokkalis_program. Some rights reserved.

In the two years in which he led Serbia, Zoran Djindjic strengthened its democratic and economic structure, cracked down on organized crime and ended its international isolation, with his pro western policies aimed at European integration.

An often controversial figure, Djindjic also initiated and strengthened cooperation with the International Crime Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and handed them Slobodan Milosevic. It was brave acts such as that which cemented Djindjic’s status as arguably the most important and respected figure in modern Serbian politics. It would also cost him his life.

Born in 1952 in Bosnia to a Yugoslavian army officer stationed there at the time, Djindjic spent his childhood in various parts of the erstwhile state. Having enrolled in the University of Belgrade, he graduated in 1974 with a degree in Philosophy. It was during this time that Djindjic gained an interest in politics. Soon his dissident activities aimed at mobilizing Yugoslav students would lead to a conviction from the communist courts.

Djindjic left Yugoslavia for West Germany to further his education, most notably under prominent German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, whose influence on him would be significant.

Returning to his homeland in 1989, Djindjic was among the founders of the Democratic Party, being elected its leader in 1994. After accusations of electoral fraud were raised against Milosevic and his government in 1996, Djindjic would be among the key figures that led and channeled public anger into a series of protests and demonstrations. They would eventually force Milosevic to accept an opposition victory. Zoran Djindjic would become the mayor of Belgrade in 1997.

After a series of political murders by Milosevic’s secret service agents, largely made up of former members of the notorious paramilitaries of the Balkan wars, Djindjic fled to Montenegro fearing for his safety during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1998.

After further protests forced Milosevic to call early elections in September 2000, Djindjic’s organizational ability was crucial for uniting the opposition, leading to a victory for its candidate, Vojislav Kostunica over Milosevic. The next month, escalating anger and popular discontent would lead to a series of historically significant demonstrations, and on October 5, 2000, the Milosevic government was dramatically overthrown. Global recognition soon followed and Djindjic was named by Time magazine as one the leading European politicians of the new millennium.

After leading the Democratic Opposition of Serbia to victory in the subsequent elections, Zoran Djindjic became the Prime Minister of Serbia in January, 2001.  Although his policies often divided public opinion, Djindjic’s government successfully rejuvenated the economy and his diplomatic skills and tireless energy led to much needed international cooperation. Djindjic would soon establish a special tribunal to combat a problem that was prominent in the region, organized crime.  

In February 2003, Djindjic escaped an attempt on his life when a truck tried to crash into his car on a Belgrade highway.  However a month later, on the March 12, 2003, Djindjic was fatally shot by a member of the Zemun clan, one of Serbia’s most notorious mafia groups, while standing outside the Serbian government building. Zoran Djindjic was 50 years old at the time of his death. His funeral drew tens of thousands of mourners, bringing the nation to a standstill.

His leadership during a unique and transitional phase in his country’s and region’s history was a huge factor in the relative peace and stability that it has enjoyed since. A decade since his tragic death, Zoran Djindjic’s vision and memory have inspired and guided the people of a nation.

About the author

Kiran Mohandas Menon is an independent researcher from India. His articles have been featured in various international publications.