Not since Archduke Franz Ferdi-nand's assassination has a murder shaken Belgrade as much as the killing of Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic. The bullets that killed Djindjic may also have slain Serbian hopes for normalcy at the very moment that we were emerging from the nightmare of Slobo-dan Milosevic's long misrule. With the bloody wars of the Yugoslav succession still etched deeply in everyone's minds, does Djindjic's assassination herald the end of an era of political violence or the dawn of a new one?
Milosevic's ouster two years ago was turbulent, but no one was killed. Serbs were justly proud -- a dictatorship was ended in a democratic, peaceful way. Milosevic's extradition to face charges of war crimes before the Hague Tribunal -- a trial that has proceeded without incident in Serbia -- was also peaceful.
With relations in the region and with the West approaching something like normalcy, Serbs were beginning to feel, at long last, that they were finding peace with themselves and the world.
Of course, assassinations are nothing new in Serbia. "Arkan," the leader of the most murderous paramilitary group in the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and a political power even after Milosevic's fall, was murdered in Belgrade last year. Djindjic himself narrowly escaped a highway assassination attempt only last month. But most Serbs were beginning to believe that the ballot and not the gun was becoming the dominant tool of politics.
Djindjic's effective leadership brought about this change. Although the most popular politician of the uprising against Milosevic was Vojislav Kostunica, who replaced him as president, it was Djindjic who skillfully coordinated the volatile coalition that opposed the regime. His boundless energy and quick thinking delivered success from behind the scenes. As Serbia's prime minister after Milosevic, he resembled a corporate chief executive officier more than the Heidelberg-educated philosophy professor that he was.
Djindjic remained pragmatic, never doctrinaire. As a result of Serbia's predicament, he accumulated more power than prime ministers typically wield. Milosevic's regime left behind crippled institutions, with large sections of the police and judiciary and many state-owned companies remaining under the control of Milosevic's clique.
With little trust in existing institutions to implement reforms, Djindjic often took shortcuts, using extra-legal means and improvised parliamentary majorities to push through legislation. Only prosperity and a "European Serbia" mattered.
Did these short cuts help incite his death? Who can say? They certainly did little to build respect for the rule of law. Yet the immediate consequences of Djindjic's death will be tragic. He was seen in the West as a reformer, and reform may not proceed without him. If it does not, urgently needed Western investment won't materialize. Serbia will again seem a benighted and lawless land.
Although Djindjic was not popular, only extreme nationalists and die-hard Milosevic supporters are cheering. They regard his murder as just punishment for the "traitor" Djindjic's decision to extradite Milosevic -- and other Serbian "heroes" -- to The Hague. The more dangerous outcome is that the assassination may reinforce the belief in Serbia that only authoritarian rule is possible.
Given the prevalence of this belief, Djindjic's death creates a serious power vacuum precisely because his vast personal power was moving Serbia in some of the right directions. Now, it is feared, organized crime will intimidate his less talented successors.
For now, Serbia's government has imposed a state of emergency. But effective or quick suppression of the organized criminals who were almost certainly behind Djindjic's murder is unlikely.
The reason for this also explains why Djindjic could not rely on the Serb state to carry out his policies. Many policemen and intelligence officers are on the crime bosses' payrolls. The fact that a former president of Serbia, Ivan Stambolic, could disappear without a trace in 1999 is grim testimony to the power of Serbia's criminal underworld.
Indeed, Djindjic may well be a victim of his recent moves to root out organized crime. He was initially slow in fighting organized crime, because he did not want to alienate the bulk of Milosevic's mafia-infested establishment at once. He preferred to confront corrupt institutions one at a time as he consolidated his rule. Sadly, he may also have needed the support of some crime bosses at the outset.
Djindjic's murder will make the fight against crime the country's main political goal. In this, politicians will at last have something like united public support. But crime would not be as powerful as it is, and the police and judiciary would not be as corrupt, if Serbia's economy were in better shape.
Serbia is poor and Western aid is desperately needed. Djindjic's murder shows that the situation is so dire that aid should no longer be strictly conditional on harsh reforms.
For the moment, extreme nationalists and Milosevic supporters may feel triumphant. But the one certain success of Djindjic's era is that they will never return to power. Their vision of a chauvinistic, inward-looking Serbia has been discredited, while Djindjic's stance may become more popular due to his martyrdom.
Moments of defeat have always been history's turning points in Serbia. Once again, Serbs face such a moment. This time, however, we must resolve to remember Djindjic's cause -- political and economic liberty -- more than his blood sacrifice.
Aleksa Djilas is the son of Yugoslavia's great dissident, Milovan Djilas, and a former fellow of Harvard University. Author of Yugoslavia, the Contested Country, he has lived as an independent intellectual in Belgrade since 1993.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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