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Serbia's trail of blood


WASHINGTON - The assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic bore the marks of a political vendetta and a well-organized conspiracy.

Even though the people who ordered his assassination Wednesday have not been identified, his enemies are widely known: the high officials in the military and security services during the blood-spattered rule of the former dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Mr. Djindjic has incurred their hatred for having organized the overthrow of the Milosevic regime and then sent him to The Hague to face war crimes charges.

In recent months, in part because of heavy U.S. pressure, Mr. Djindjic was said to be moving closer toward apprehending and extraditing to The Hague other former high officials, including Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander. All are hiding in Serbia under the protection of powerful nationalist factions in the Serbian military and security establishment.

Mr. Djindjic knew he was risking his life. False reports of his assassinations appeared in regional Serb media late last year, presumably as a warning. Three weeks ago, he narrowly escaped death when a truck attempted to ram the car in which he was being driven to the Belgrade airport. (Execution presented as a tragic traffic accident was a favored method used by the communist secret police).

But even by the violent standard of Serbian politics, the assassination was shocking. The last leader of Serbia to be assassinated in Belgrade was King Alexander a century ago. A capricious and incompetent despot, Alexander had disbanded parliament and imposed a military dictatorship. The Serbs also hated him for his complete subservience to Austria.

In April 1903, the king's police opened fire on street demonstrators in Belgrade. A group of army officers hatched a conspiracy that resulted in a gruesome regicide two months later. The king and his queen were slain in their palace, and their naked, mutilated bodies were thrown from their bedroom windows.

A prince from a rival dynasty was brought to the throne after nearly four decades of exile in Switzerland. King Peter was 60, with no experience in statecraft. But this sober, modest and highly educated man (who translated John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty) proved to be the finest liberal ruler Serbia has ever known.

A century later, the assassins have removed from the scene the politician who was a rarity in Serbia - a lifelong democratic activist who was jailed as a student by the communist regime and who earned a doctorate in philosophy during decades of exile in Germany. Mr. Djindjic was a thoroughly modern politician whose goal was to integrate Serbia into the modern world. He was pragmatic, shrewd and willing to make hard decisions.

The power vacuum left by his demise will be hard to fill. There are no obvious candidates. This, in the long run, means continued instability and the need for a continued presence of U.S. troops in the Balkans; the assassination underscores just how little progress Serbia has made in its painful progress toward democracy. Assassinations were a hallmark of Mr. Milosevic's regime.

Mr. Milosevic was, in effect, the godfather of major organized crime gangs, which he used to terrorize the population. Some of his real or potential enemies disappeared and were never found (among them Mr. Milosevic's predecessor as Serbia's leader and his former mentor, Ivan Stambolic.) Others were gunned down in daylight in Belgrade hotels and restaurants, among them a former police minister and a defense minister.

The glaring ineptitude of The Hague prosecutors to make a compelling case against Mr. Milosevic may have contributed to the current instability in Serbia. Mr. Milosevic has been using the televised trial to talk to his supporters and cheer up the hard-liners who still remain in the position of power. Nor has the United States helped.

In a prescient remark, Mr. Djindjic said that Serbia could turn into a "European Iraq" unless it is helped to restore its economy. "When this is all over, Kosovo will no longer be an important political issue but we will have hunger and social unrest," he said. "That will not be very good grounds for democracy."

Dusko Doder is an author and a journalist with extensive experience in the former Yugoslavia.

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