Mobsters taking over in Belgrade War and sanctions make opportunities

December 02, 1992|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE -- Belgrade schoolboys have a new hero. They're calling him their James Dean. He died young last month, assassinated Chicago gangster-style at age 22. Five bullets were pumped into him when he answered the door of his luxury hotel room dressed in his trademark heavy gold chain and leather jacket.

Tributes to Alexander Knezevic filled the death-notice pages of Belgrade's newspapers. A new pop song: "It's Hard to Live" has been devoted to him. Legend and reality already are blurring, but he is credited with exploits from running protection rackets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to robbing Belgrade's main casino to being a killer in a Serbian paramilitary group.

On the night after his death, Mr. Knezevic's gang of toughs toured the city forcing cafes and bars to stop playing music and switch off lights in mourning.

The killer has not been found. The victim's father believes it was the police. Others say he was wiped out by the feared "Arkan" (whose real name is Zeljko Raznajtovic) whose "Tigers" Serbian paramilitary group is linked with the worst killing and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The reason, according to one source: "Knele" had worked with Arkan but was getting too big for his boots."

What is undisputed is that the assassination is no longer extraordinary in Belgrade. Mr. Knezevic's was not the only killing that day.

At about the same time across town a black Mercedes drew up alongside a streetcar as another gangland figure, Igor Popovic, 20, was stepping off. He was shot before he could hurl a grenade into the car.

Both murders are just the latest evidence that Belgrade is becoming the Chicago of the Balkans, taken over by mob "kings" with shoot-outs, rising crime and general lawlessness the order of the day.

The atmosphere is one of uncertainty and violence. Even in Belgrade the night is frequently punctured by gunshots: Almost everyone is armed. It is hard to find anyone in Belgrade who has not been robbed or does not know somebody who has.

The police are often of little help. One woman had her apartment broken into recently. When the police came they did not take fingerprints or ask serious questions. "Your best protection is to buy a gun," the woman was told. "Come down to the station and we will help you fill out the forms to get one. We really advise you to do it because these thieves are bound to be back."

It is a direct result of the Croatia and Bosnia wars. A source with links to the underworld describes them as "young men, mostly in their early 20s. They have been fighting in these paramilitary groups. They have looted and killed. They have taken a liking to the lifestyle, the easy pickings and carried this over into Belgrade. They are armed and nobody can control them."

One of their hangouts is Belgrade's Aisha Cafe where vast wads of bank notes openly exchange hands.

Fantastic stories about the gangs circulating in Belgrade cannot be verified but they range from tales of van loads of bank notes plying their way between Bosnia and Serbia, with the mobsters linking up with local Serbian warlords there, to gun running, dubious dealings involving bank accounts of the elite in Cyprus and Greece and even involvement in diamond trading with Russia.

United Nations sanctions have helped the new underworld. Encouraged by -- many say linked with -- the government of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the toughs have been making fortunes.

Mr. Milosevic has been able to declare them ineffective. This month's sanctions tightening will have an impact -- the gangs were using a glaring loophole allowing transshipment of goods across Yugoslavia to third countries. They simply stated a different destination and unloaded the goods in Yugoslavia.

But the cordon will still be leaky: Gasoline tankers already have been seen driving through fields across the Romanian border.

A Belgrade police spokesman said authorities were helpless because old federal law-enforcement structures were breaking down. "Yugoslavia has collapsed and the traditional links between the Serb and federal police no longer function -- we know crime is growing but there is little we can do about it."

But that is not the only explanation. In another throwback to old Chicago, there are indications the burgeoning mob world has links with the Serbian elite and the police.

When Mr. Knezevic was arrested on charges of killing another gangland figure in Montenegro a few months ago, the Serbian Interior Ministry sent a helicopter to bring him back to Belgrade and freedom. This summer his cropped-haired, leather-jacketed men were spotted beating up opposition protesters during student demonstrations in the main Terazie Square -- police had withdrawn moments earlier.

That Mr. Knezevic and other gangland bosses are local heroes is symptomatic of a serious social and moral disintegration. One of the new popular songs is devoted to Arkan's Tigers, perhaps the strongest of all paramilitary forces:

They are guarding Serb glory,

And defend Serb lands,

Arkan's Tigers

They are brave men with flaws.

As one psychologist put it: "After 45 years of modeling the whole society from above, we are faced with a natural struggle of each against all. And in this struggle . . . the strongest and most unscrupulous and not the best-educated and most honest take the best positions in society and become its economic elite."

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