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Serbia: Dismantling the Myths

In an interview with the Washington Post on March 13, 2003, the day after Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was murdered, Marko Nicovic, a former police chief in Belgrade, observed that, “Nowhere in the world is there such a symbiosis between criminals, the security services, and the ruling establishment as here in Yugoslavia.” He added that, “When the Democrats came to power [in Serbia] after the October revolution, they made a big mistake: They accepted the support of the criminal groups and corrupt policemen who were previously aligned with Milosevic.”

As the U.S. government applauds Serbia’s round-up of criminal syndicates in the wake of the tragic assassination of Zoran Djindjic, it should look long and hard at Marko Nicovic’s assessment of Serbia as a place where the underworld operates hand in glove with war criminals, special police forces, and government officials. And then, if it wants to achieve lasting peace and stability in the Balkans, the U.S. government should look long and hard at the West’s role in failing to dismantle the Milosevic system, while it mythologized the realities of postwar Serbia. Djindjic was purportedly murdered because he was on the verge of turning the socalled Zemun Clan and other criminal networks over to the courts. But he was also murdered because he had forged an unholy alliance with organized crime in the effort to oust Slobodan Milosevic from power in October 2000 and then send him to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Although the most democratic force at the top of the Serbian government, Djindjic owed his ascension to power to the underworld, and there is ample evidence that he profited from his connections to it. When he finally made the decision to break the hold of organized crime on his government under pressure from the West, he paid the ultimate price.

On April 2, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell flew from Turkey to Belgrade for a courtesy call with President Svetozar Marovic and Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic of Serbia and Montenegro “to show our support for the country as they go through this difficult time and let them know we are with them.” He was of course referring to the death of Zoran Djindjic, after which Belgrade declared a state of emergency and then arrested three thousand Serbian citizens in pursuit of his assassins and in an effort to quash the criminal networks that led to his demise. While Secretary Powell’s show of support to another nation during a time of crisis is appropriate, there is something disquieting about his expression of affinity with a Serbia that has been unmasked as a criminally controlled state—a state still in the throes of the ultranationalism, xenophobia, and racism that led it to occupy Kosova for a decade and to wage four wars of aggression and genocide in the Balkans at a cost of 350,000 lives and four million displaced.

Unsurprisingly, Milorad “Legija” Lukovic, the head of the Zemun criminal gang that was given free reign in postwar Serbia to smuggle, steal, extort, and murder, was also the former commander of the special police unit the Red Berets that committed the worst wartime atrocities against Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians.

The United States and Western Europe bear some responsibility for the power of war criminals and organized crime in postwar Serbia because of their insistence, since the fall of Milosevic, that Serbia was a newly minted democracy that should be rapidly readmitted into the community of nations with full access to international financial institutions and governing bodies. With unexamined nostalgia for Tito’s Yugoslavia and false notions of economic advantages in Serbia, Washington and Brussels have turned a blind eye for the past four years to the fact that Serbia was closer to a gangster state than a democracy. The U.S. government has denied this reality to the point that it even looked the other way when Serbs danced in the streets after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Until recently, the U.S. government and Europe have made one concession after another in the face of Belgrade’s refusal to extradite Serbian war criminals, especially Bosnian Serb commanders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, to the Hague Tribunal. Washington and Brussels have stood by while Belgrade has worked to destabilize Kosova and Bosnia, to illegally partition northern Kosova, and to misrepresent Albanians in the international press as the source of violence in the Balkans. And, in spite of two major televised reports, one on ABC-TV and the other on CBS’s 60 Minutes, exposing Serbia’s illegal arms sales to Iraq, these sales—which were initiated by Milosevic and escalated under the Djindjic government—have gone unchecked.

“The United States must take some of the blame for the way that the state and organized crime continue to march hand and hand in this country,” said Zoran Kusovacs, the Balkan defense analyst for Jane’s Defense Weekly, on the March 30, 2003, 60 Minutes broadcast of “Look Who’s Selling Arms to Iraq.” According to Kosovacs, the United States, along with other Western countries, “has let the changes go skin deep” in Serbia. This is what makes Secretary Powell’s assertion that “we are with you” so troubling—as is the misguided call from some quarters, following Djindjic’s murder, that the United States should relax its pressure on Serbia to turn over war criminals and to make democratic reforms in exchange for foreign aid. As Senator Joseph Biden correctly said in a speech in Chicago on September 15, 2002, Serbia, as the “prime mover of the insane genocidal warfare of the 1980s and 1990s,” must meet all of the conditions necessary to receive U.S. assistance, including publicly apologizing to Kosova and Bosnia. Like the Germans of the Nazi era, he argued, it is important for Serbs to shed the mythology that they are victims—”a mythology that has enabled them to justify their acts of aggression against others.”

If we are really “with Serbia,” then the United States should join with its people in dismantling the myths about Serbia’s past and bringing about real reform so that new generations of Serbs do not repeat history and so that the country can finally become an integral part of a democratic Europe. It will not be enough to round up the criminal leftovers of the Milosevic era. Until Serbia confronts its history of racism and genocide against non-Slavs, peace and stability in the Balkans, and therefore in Europe, will remain elusive.

Ossining, New York April 3, 2003 Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi is Balkan Affairs Adviser to the Albanian American Civic League

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