BELGRADE, SERBIA-MONTENEGRO -- For a journalist, Iraq is ostensibly the only place to be these days. But the reality is that it's quite easy to get a good picture of the situation there from a distance, by reading and by channel surfing. The same can't be said of Serbia. Not long ago this country was the focus of the world's attention; now it is a place where it seems that just about anything can happen -- and, no matter how dramatic, receive scant attention in the world at large.

I was here several weeks ago when the reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated, and I covered it for media around the world. But the war with Iraq began shortly thereafter, and soon the former Yugoslavia was a locale non grata.

It's too bad that no one is paying attention, because a lot has happened here since the prime minister's assassination. Buoyed by a rare opportunity to hit back hard at normally untouchable elements, allies of the slain leader have moved quickly under a state of emergency to rid the country of powerful gangs -- gangs that had grown strong under the protection of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic and have held this budding democracy in a virtual stranglehold since his ouster.

The arrest last week of alleged triggerman Zvezdan "Zveki" Jovanovic -- a deputy commander of a controversial and feared paramilitary group, the Red Berets, which has ties to a criminal organization known as the Zemun gang -- represented the culmination of a sweeping investigation that has led to the detention and interrogation of thousands and rocked daily life here. It also sent a signal that the government is not planning to stop at the level of petty criminals and dope dealers but is delving into their ties to Milosevic's leftover security forces, whose stubborn resistance to reforms and well-known underworld ties have prevented the country from making progress toward stable democracy.

The man believed to have ordered the assassination, Milorad Lukovic (aka "Legija"), remains at large. But in the last few days rumors have circulated that he's bargaining with Hague prosecutors for immunity and a new identity. According to these accounts, Legija offered to provide information that could lead to the arrest of The Hague's most-wanted war criminals, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic -- both of whom are believed to be responsible for many of the 200,000 civilian deaths of the early 1990s conflict in the Balkans. In this dramatic and surreal environment, it's impossible to assess the credibility of such gossip, but the possibility is certainly interesting.

Legija symbolizes the nexus of war crimes, ordinary crime and official power that has paralyzed this society since Milosevic's ouster. He commanded the Red Berets -- a force created by Milosevic's secret police because the dictator did not trust the army to carry out his more controversial orders, which largely involved pillaging, plundering and terrorizing local populations. At his Hague trial, Milosevic has thus far relied on his arm's-length arrangement with the unit to provide a form of plausible deniability for complicity in war crimes.

In 2000, Legija, reading the writing on the wall, aligned himself and his Red Berets with the democratic reform movement led by Djindjic -- guaranteeing the success of the popular uprising that ousted Milosevic and thereby buying himself immunity for a time. But his bizarre, violent behavior soon led to his firing, and he returned to his old neighborhood. Once there, he promptly took over the gangland activities of the local clan, which dealt in narcotics, murder and kidnapping.

It is believed that Legija suspected that Djindjic's government, under strong pressure from the international community, would deliver him to The Hague -- and that Legija's alleged decision to assassinate Djindjic was prompted by this fear. Djindjic had recently declared war on organized crime came at the same time as he was signaling increased cooperation with The Hague. It all was happening rather fast. In fact, the very day of Djindjic's assassination, criminal arrest warrants for the entire Zemun clan were on his desk to be signed.

The government is tempering its current aggressiveness with a peculiar mix of sweeping overstatement and verbal restraint, backed by a state of emergency that limits local media coverage and encourages even more speculation in a speculation-crazy society. I attended new Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic's first regularly scheduled press conference last week and was struck by how cautiously he spoke -- and by the fact that he did not even mention Legija's name.

The rapid pace of dramatic events here does not seem to be slowing down. Last week police cornered two Zemun leaders and killed them in a shootout. Police also found the body of a former Yugoslavian president, Ivan Stambolic, who disappeared in 2000 after becoming a political competitor of Milosevic. Meanwhile, Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, who has maintained her own power base even with her husband in The Hague, has vanished and is believed to be somewhere in Russia.

In the tumult, the new prime minister has begun moving to rid the judiciary -- starting with the Supreme Court -- of corrupt Milosevic appointees. The military has been placed under civilian control, and Boris Tadic, the new, young defense minister has dismissed general Aco Tomic, the shadowy head of the army's counterintelligence branch, who was said to be creating roadblocks to reform. And the parliament has enacted a new body of jurisprudence, including the establishment of a special prosecutor solely devoted to fighting organized crime.

Still, much progress has yet to be made. At his press conference last Wednesday, Zivkovic was reluctant to go after the Red Berets organization as a whole. Despite the fact that leaders of the group have been arrested or are being sought, and despite the fact that the extremely loyal rank and file were forcibly disarmed and their unit disbanded, Zivkovic insisted on dubbing most members of the group "professionals who did their work honorably." When I asked him how that could possibly be the case -- given what is known both about the Red Berets' leaders and the unit's war crimes and more mundane crimes -- Zivkovic responded, "In no army do the soldiers choose their leaders." Then he added, "I stand fast with the opinion most of them are not involved in criminal activities." That's an opinion not widely shared among knowledgeable Serbs. And it suggests that at this moment, Zivkovic, correctly or not, believes he can only go so far.

Russ Baker, a commentator and journalist, is in the Balkans training media organizations in investigative reporting.

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