Serbia's Lesson

Police states don't just fade away. Their remnants persist -- through deeply intertwined networks of secret police, paramilitary units and criminal groups that have enriched themselves while serving as pillars of support to tyrants. No one knew this more than Zoran Djindjic, the pro-reform Serbian prime minister who was assassinated on Wednesday. And no one appears to know this less than Bush administration officials who assume that sweeping tyranny from Iraq will be as simple as a few days of precision bombing. The Djindjic assassination suggests that cleaning up after despots -- such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein or Serbia's former dictator Slobodan Milosevic -- is never as easy as Bush would have Americans believe. As Serbs are learning, the process takes years. And even then, it is not guaranteed to work.

It appears that a Belgrade organized crime operation known as the Zemun group was responsible for ordering Djindjic's assassination. The group is headed by a former French foreign legionnaire named Milorad Lukovic -- better known by his nickname, "Legija" -- who is also the former chief of Serbia's special operations police unit, the "red berets." According to a government statement, the same day he was assassinated, the prime minister had been expected to order the arrest of Legija and other members of the Zemun group, which has been implicated in everything from previous assassinations to war crimes. Djindjic himself escaped an earlier assassination attempt believed to have been ordered by Legija on Feb. 21, in which a truck tried but failed to crash into the prime minister's car.

A lean, pragmatic, German-educated former dissident and philosopher, Djindjic had inherited the remnants of Milosevic's Serbian police state after leading a heroic opposition movement that drove the dictator from power in 2000. But as the public face of pro-western reform in Serbia, he was not particularly popular in a country still deeply conflicted over Milosevic's war-time policies and post-communist market reforms. Many Serbs still feel that the West holds them unfairly responsible for atrocities that Serb forces perpetrated during conflicts in neighboring Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo -- conflicts that killed more than 200,000 people on all sides.

In such an unsettled political atmosphere, crime organizations such as the Zemun group have become both a serious drain on Serbia's legitimate economy and an obstacle to the country's transformation into a functioning democratic state. They are Milosevic's legacy to the country he once ruled, and they are part of the reason that true regime change has not come easily to Serbia.

"Milosevic ran Serbia like a large organized crime organization," says Eric Witte, of a Washington-based human rights group called the Coalition for International Justice. "When he was ousted, there was a scramble by his successors including Djindjic to take control of the remnants. But the network never left. In large measure, the Milosevic regime lived on without Milosevic. Djindjic realized it was becoming more and more powerful. It was becoming a question of would there be any role left for politicians to run the country. He was faced with the necessity of tackling the network, and he began laying the groundwork to do that. And he was clearly seen as a threat to the network."

It would be hard to overstate how powerful organized crime is in Serbia, and how intertwined it is with the state apparatus -- and in particular, the police and intelligence services. Serbia is a place where smuggling of cigarettes, drugs, guns and humans has managed to flourish. Leaders of paramilitary units that once committed war-time atrocities today head the criminal networks that thrive on such smuggling. For many in Serbia, it is a fact of life that these criminal networks are where real power resides -- and that the institutions of democratic government are, in many ways, only a pretense.

While the power and influence of the networks are not secret, their exact chains of command, operating procedures and involvement in past war crimes have been exposed only recently, in detailed testimony by protected witnesses at Milosevic's trial in the Hague. During the last few weeks, rumors swirled in Belgrade that more war crimes indictments -- implicating Legija and other Milosevic-era secret police and paramilitary unit commanders -- were on their way.

Those people "are getting nervous now," Sonja Biserko, head of Serbia's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, told me in a phone interview from Sarajevo yesterday. "The Hague trial is becoming so revealing. There have been too many testimonies. The Hague trial is now a mirror of Serbia, reconstructing the reality of what Serbia is now and what it has been for the past 10, 15 years."

Ironically, it was not past war-time atrocities, but rather more recent organized crime activities -- particularly drug smuggling -- that Djindjic was preparing to address and that may have led to his assassination. But at this point, Serbia's organized crime problem cannot be separated from its history of war crimes during the 1990s. The two are connected first and foremost because many of the same people are involved; but also because the continuing power of organized crime shows that the link between violence and power that allowed war crimes to take place during the 1990s endures today. It is the specter of Milosevic's criminalized state -- in which violence played an important role in national politics -- that Serbs will now have to decide whether to tolerate or to reject, once and for all.

"This level of brutality," says Bogdan Ivanisevic, the Belgrade representative of Human Rights Watch, "and this readiness of the remnants of the Milosevic regime to use all and any means in order to achieve their goals, will hopefully make some people put their finger on their head and think about how far they can go in tolerating the past and present conduct of the opponents of reform in Serbia." It should also make members of the Bush administration put their fingers to their heads and consider that the remnants of dictatorship do not disappear quietly -- or without an extended fight.

Laura Rozen, who reported from the Balkans from 1996 to 2000, writes on national security issues from Washington, D.C.