The failed divorce of Serbia's government and organized crime.

AuthorMladenovic, Nemanja

The first democratically elected Prime Minister of Serbia, Dr. Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated in 2003 by an organized crime group closely connected to Serbian state institutions. The group had amassed enormous wealth through transnational drug trafficking. The political sponsors of Djindjic's assassination are still protected in Serbia today due to the high level of systemic corruption and a lack of political will to prosecute those responsible for this heinous crime. Since their protection impedes justice and, thus, obstructs the rule of law and democratic progress in Serbia, contemporary Serbian society could be seen as the hostage of transnational organized crime and corrupted state officials.


"Here is the question--still unanswered--who are the masterminds behind Duca, Legija, and Zveki? Although some politicians have hinted and part of the public is convinced they exist, the official investigation has not clearly indicted anyone.... The process of returning Serbia to a normal state and its transformation into a well-governed country appears to be irreversible. But what has the assassination of Zoran Djindjic brought to those who were using political dogmas, prejudices, and ideology as an excuse for this crime?

Milos Vasic (1)

This is how Milos Vasic ended his excellent book Atentat na Zorana in 2005, two years before the Special Court for Organized Crime sentenced twelve men, including Milorad Ulemek, also known as "Legija," and Zvezdan Jovanovic, also known as "Zveki," to a total of 378 years for the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Dr. Zoran Djindjic. (2) We are now in 2012 and the question asked by Vasic remains unanswered. Djindjic's assassination was not only a personal loss for his family and friends, but it was also a defining event of the period that came after the toppling of dictator Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. This article argues that the assassination was the result of a struggle between organized crime forces and modernizing and democratizing forces in Serbia. It was also an attempt to secure impunity for war criminals still active in the Serbian police and military forces. It was a show of power that serves even today as a warning to anyone who dares to democratize Serbia by building strong democratic institutions and securing the rule of law. In this sense, the bullet that went through Djindjic's heart was aimed directly at the future of democracy in Serbia. As long as the political sponsors responsible for his murder are not put on trial, this bullet will continue to rip through weak Serbian institutions and serve as a warning to any progressive individual or group not to rock the boat. Additionally, given that Serbia is one of the most influential countries in the western Balkans, such obstacles to emerging democratic institutions could have ramifications for the stability of the region. Therefore, it is crucial for both Serbia and the region to probe into the political background of the assassination and to prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law.

In November 2010, seven years after the assassination, Srdja Popovic, Djindjic's family lawyer, filed criminal charges against the Special Operations Unit(JSO), for its participation in the 2001 rebellion. The rebellion is a crucial event for understanding the political background of the assassination. The JSO was an elite police unit founded in the 1990s by Milosevic and Jovica Stanisic, the chief of the State Security Service. The State Security Service was later renamed the Security Information Agency (BIA). Led by Milorad Ulemek, an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire, the unit served Milosevic and his wife by conducting political assassinations, smuggling operations, and other tasks to protect the regime in general? Ulemek had strong personal ties with the criminal underground in Serbia, especially with the Zemun Clan, whose bosses were Dusan "Siptar" Spasojevic and Mile "Kum" Lukovic. The clan's drug trafficking network extended from Bulgaria and Macedonia in the north, through Kosovo in the south, and stretched into Western Europe. (4) This nexus between state officials, special police forces, and multiethnic organized crime groups with cross border activities, established during the 1990s and best described in the popular saying, "every state has its mafia, but only in Serbia the mafia has its state," managed to survive long after Milosevic was toppled in 2000. (5)

According to an investigative reporter with expertise in organized crime, Dejan Anastasijevic, the main source of revenue for the Zemun Clan before Djindjic's assassination--apart from kidnappings, extortion, and contract murders--was drug trafficking. For this, the Zemun Clan tapped the routes that were used to traffic oil and cigarettes during the UN-imposed sanctions in the 1990s. These routes were controlled by the BIA, whose role was to ensure a smooth transition of goods through Serbian territory. The final destination for most of the shipments was Western Europe. Interestingly, these operations involved organized crime groups not only from Serbia, but also from neighboring countries. (6) One of the best examples of this nexus is given by Anastasijevic below, whose work earned him an assassination attempt in 2007--a hand grenade went off right outside the bedroom window of his downtown Belgrade apartment. (7)

An interesting insight into the way the crime gangs cooperate can be gleaned from the case of Qamil Shabani, an ethnic Albanian from Urosevac. Shabani was a close associate of Metush Bajrami, an ethnic Albanian from Macedonia with a Bulgarian citizenship, who supervised heroin transports via Turkey, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. But Shabani was also linked with the Serbian crime ring known as the Zemun Clan.... Until the ring was busted, members of the Zemun gang were regularly picking up heroin shipments from Shabani's warehouse in Urosevac and transported them into Serbia through the Presevo valley; thanks to their connections with BIA, their vehicles were often escorted by Serbian security officers, ensuring that trucks could pass through police checkpoints without being searched. The scheme worked until the leaders of the Zemun Clan and their BIA accomplices were arrested in 2003, after they organized the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, Serbia's Prime Minister. (8) Most members of Balkan organized crime groups tend to be ultranationalists in public. (9) However, when it comes to their personal interests, the closest business ties are being established even among so-called worst enemies--Serbs and Albanians. (10) Indeed, Yugoslavia has never ceased to exist for the organized crime world in the Balkans. This clearly shows that transnational organized crime networks are extremely resistant; they can survive even during and after an open ethnic conflict. Such hypocrisy became visible during the trial for Djindjic's assassination when it was established that "the leading members of the Zemun Clan underwent 'special training courses' by the BIA, and that the agency routinely provided protection for the gang members. The only explanation from the BIA's officials was that the gang members were providing the agency with 'valuable data on Albanian terrorists in Kosovo'." (11)

In November 2001, the JSO rebelled against the Serbian government because it feared that Djindjic's cooperation with the Hague tribunal could lead to the arrest of many JSO members and their protectors for committing war crimes during the 1990s. The JSO, fully armed and with the use of combat vehicles, occupied part of the highway that runs through the center of Belgrade to prevent this outcome. After the 2001 rebellion, Djindjic practically lost even the very limited oversight he had of the BIA, while control over the army and its secret intelligence arm, the Military Security Agency (VBA), was never achieved. He tried to regain some control over the BIA in 2002 and in the first few months of 2003, came very close to succeeding. (12) Resolved to crushing the JSO and allied mafia clans, he declared 2002 the year of the fight against organized crime. The Djindiic government even adopted the Law on the Fight against Organized Crime in July of that year. However, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and their Montenegrin allies blocked the passage of the law in federal parliament until December 2002. (13) After learning that the mafia was obtaining secret security information from the BIA, Djindjic decided in January 2003 to replace the deputy chief of the BIA, who was said to be allied with Ulemek. (14) Exactly one week before the assassination, a new office of the Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime was formed in Belgrade, and a new special prosecutor was appointed by Prime Minister Djindjic to serve in the post. (15) On 11 March 2003, the special prosecutor had testimonies signed by crucial witnesses from the newly established witness protection program in Serbia and was ready to issue warrants for the arrest of Ulemek and other important figures. (16) Unfortunately, the assassins struck first. On 12 March 2003, at 12:25 p.m., Dr. Zoran Djindjic, the first democratically elected prime minister of Serbia, was killed by a sniper in front of a government building in downtown Belgrade. (17)

During the trial in 2010, apart from the members of the JSO...

To continue reading