Today is the 8th anniversary of the assassination of Serbia’s dynamic young prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
And as the years drift by, Balkan conspiracy theories spread their twisted tentacles in more and more directions. Here for those who can use Google Translator are the mutterings of close Djindjic spin-doctor Vladimir ‘Beba’ Popovic who seeks to blame former FRY President Vojislav Kostunica for implicitly’approving’ Djindjic’s murder while admitting that there is no hard evidence to support this.
These loony theories take on a life of their own eventually, as was shown by a feisty TV reporter on the supposedly sensible B92 station who asked to interview me when I was in Belgrade las t week on what happened around the time of the killing. Her questions showed the strange lines of thinking which now prevail:
Q: Did the British government warn Djindjic that he might be at risk? (Idiotic insinuation #1: that we knew about these dangers and did or did not do everything possible to help avert them)
A: I talked to Djindjic myself a couple of days before he died. I had no need to tip him off as he himself was very well aware of the risk he was running, but breezily dismissed his would-be killers as ‘cowards’ who would never dare take the fatal step
Q: Did the British government lobby to end the state of emergency after his death just when the investigation was getting close to eg Kostunica? (Idiotic insinuation #2: that eg HMG were ‘behind’ the full truth coming out)
A: HMG and other European governments fully supported the imposition of the state of emergency, but after a few weeks it started to look like weakness, not strength, a point made by many governments in a friendly way. No more than that
Q: Why had I been so close to so many politicians at the time? (Idiotic insinuation #3: that the US and UK Ambassadors were playing a full and devious part in key political decisions)
A: Because that was my job, duh. There was a huge effort on in 2001/02 to help the Djindjic government drive forward its reform programmes, with senior delegations from Western capitals arriving all the time. Of course I had to keep close to Djindjic and others to help get things done.
And so on.
Anyway, here is a tribute to Zoran Djindjic and his memory. Extracts from the telegram I sent to London on the morning after Djindjic was murdered, a piece of work done at great speed which won me some of the highest praise I ever received in my FCO career:
KEYDOC: ZORAN DJINDJIC: SERBIAN HERO, EUROPEAN FRIEND
The Serbs lose a European hero, we lose a Balkan friend.
The murder of Zoran Djindjic is a shocking blow. Europe again has lost a leader to a gunman, a development thankfully so rare on our continent.
Djindjic had an exciting life, characterised by ‘anti-establishment’ instincts and a restless, mercurial determination to get to the top. He was born into a Yugoslav Army family and lived all round former SFRY before clashing with the communist authorities for trying to set up independent student groups. He went off to complete his studies in Germany before emerging as a leader of the nascent Serbia democratic movement when the Cold War ended.
He had high ups and low downs during the long Milosevic years: roasting an ox with Karadzic, rumours of secret deals with the regime, the 1996/97 demonstrations, a few weeks as Mayor of Belgrade, leaving Serbia after death threats during the NATO bombardment, the final DOS campaign culminating in Milosevic’s downfall in 2000, the secret side deals with Milosevic loyalists which made that crisis pass off peacefully.
Internet attacks on Djindjic’s record in government are already emerging from opponents with Serb nationalist and/or anti-Western leanings:
- Djindjic was not honest – he was close to cigarette smugglers and other prominent criminals, including the very gang now alleged to have killed him
- Djindjic was no reformer: he manipulated events and institutions to thwart normal development and make life easier for his business associates, cherry-picking amidst the wreckage of Serbia’s post-communist economy thanks to a debased privatisation process
- Djindjic was no democrat: he played games with the courts and parliament, ejecting Kostunica’s party from the Serbia Assembly last year until he was forced to readmit them
- Djindjic was no patriot: he knew the cost of everything, the value of nothing. He sold Milosevic to ICTY for foreign assistance and was ready to jettison Montenegro or work with SAM, as the case might be. Kosovo would have been his next bargaining chip.
Aiming off for political rhetoric there is a case to answer here. But Djindjic also had formidable talents, which have made a huge difference for the better since he came into government:
- Djindjic showed leadership: he was fascinated with power and its public and private aspects. But he took tough decisions with self-confidence and vindictive glee, not least the transfer to ICTY of Milosevic in 2001 but also far-reaching economic reform measures
- Djindjic had flair: his sparkle and energy had to be seen to be appreciated. His speech at the LSE during his visit to London last year was an improvised, passionate pro-reform tour de force, going far beyond the usual hollow cliches of Balkan leaders
- Djindjic valued Ideas: he loved the Internet and poured out the latest ideas on life-long learning and the Knowledge Society at a rate far exceeding the capacity of ordinary Serbs to follow him
- Djindjic was a superb politician: he had an uncanny feel for the balance of advantage for every move and calculating its impact on public opinion. He was always on the look-out for the unexpected initiatives to throw everyone else off balance (eg his recent pronouncements on Kosovo) – a skill eerily reminiscent of Milosevic at times
In the end Djindjic probably was murdered by the very worst criminal elements whose links to him had never been explained. The Zemun drug dealers and Legija’s Special Units had brazenly thrown their weight around Belgrade since Milosevic fell, known by the mass of Serbs to be ruthless killers yet surviving the downfall of Milosevic to re-emerge as some sort of shady allies with the Djindjic government.
Djindjic of course had done deals with these people as Milosevic fell – one reason why there was so little bloodshed at the time, a fact we all acclaimed. He even used Legija to arrest Milosevic – who else would do it?
But Djindjic latterly came to realise that these villains and their ICTY indictee counterparts were an intolerable burden for himself and a threat to his re-election prospects next year. So he was winding up a series of moves against them, cockily making no secret of the fact. In my penultimate private conversation with him just after the first assassination attempt (my telno 51) he cheerily brushed aside concerns about his own safety, “these people are nothing special – it was easy to kill people when there would be no consequences”.
Alas for him and his family and for us, Djindjic got this one wrong. These despicable but highly trained killers did not like Djindjic going back on his earlier undertakings. They hit him with one massive explosive sniper shell, which left a 20 sq cm hole in his back as it exited. He had no chance.
So a brilliant career – but an ambiguous legacy.
The key thing for us is that unlike most post-Yugoslavia leaders Djindjic really understood modern Europe. He felt at home with European friends, talking fluent English and German. If he was corrupt, he wanted Serbia to move to normal European levels of corruption. He realised that to lead the bewildered and demoralised Serbia population to Europe required a vast upheaval, however unpopular that might be. His government bravely drove forward reform laws at unprecedented speed, albeit at the cost of declining ratings.
I came to know Zoran Djindjic fairly well, and saw for myself his wit, energy and insight. I will miss him. Serbia loses an all too rare local European hero. We lose an all too rare true Balkan friend.