In Yugoslavia, crime has become the norm

August 02, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- In an ever more shadowy land where banks go belly-up from pyramid schemes and the police allegedly run organized crime, government adviser Mihajlo Markovic recalls that not so long ago there was serious talk about cleaning up the mess.

"I was the one who usually demanded that we do more," said Mr. Markovic, former vice president to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. "But the response was always that we didn't want people in government to be fighting among themselves, which was a tacit recognition that some of the people among us were scoundrels. Another reason might be that some of these scoundrels are very powerful people, and it would take quite a job to fight them."

So, nothing was done.

Now, as international trade sanctions bite into the economy of Yugoslavia, reduced to Serbia and Montenegro, corruption is biting deeper still, authorities say. Belgrade in particular is awash in waves of smuggling, racketeering and extortion, with some of the proceeds apparently being used to finance the war in Bosnia.

The result is a surreal atmosphere of menace, in which almost everyone seems suspect. People of Belgrade got an inkling of just how deep the rot may reach during a recent radio interview with Dragan Mladenovic, head of criminal investigations for the Serbian police.

Mr. Mladenovic said half of the nation's police were on the take, and he went on to name some of the highest-ranking law enforcement officials as key players in two clans of organized crime.

"The leader of the first clan is the deputy minister of police, Radovan Stojcic, alias Badza," he said. "The second clan consists mainly of Montenegrins, and their leader is Slavisa Scekic, chief of the police Division for Armed Robberies and Extortion."

Naming names

Mr. Mladenovic then mapped out Belgrade's underworld turf, saying: "Belgrade is divided territorially in zones, but also operationally -- by extortion, robbery, drugs. The extortion money, paid by shop and restaurant owners, is collected by criminals, but the police chiefs get the best part of it."

Whenever someone complains of an extortion attempt, he said, "He is referred to Mr. Scekic, who is authorized to investigate such cases. Mr. Scekic always tells these people to put it all down on paper and come back tomorrow. No one ever comes back. People somehow change their minds before the end of the day. The difficult types who are late with their payments sometimes get framed and end up serving time for things they never did."

Mr. Mladenovic's remarks created an understandable public stir, but they drew hardly any government response and prompted no public reaction from the accused.

The police said, unofficially, that Mr. Mladenovic was being treated for schizophrenia (which he denies). Radmilo Bogdanovic, a Socialist who heads parliamentary oversight of law enforcement, when surrounded by reporters, allowed: "This young man is obviously astray. We will find out in whose interest he said these things. Even if what he said is true, this is not the right way."

As the affair has played out, the government also has been sorting through the remains of banking and investment scandals. The most tantalizing of these involves the Dafiment Bank, founded in October 1991 by Dafina Milanovic.

Mrs. Milanovic's only previous experience in high finance was a conviction for fraud and embezzlement, but she apparently overcame this handicap with the help of good political connections. Besides, her bank was promising knockout interest rates.

It opened with a 45 percent monthly interest rate for hard currency deposits (dollars or deutsche marks). The rate eventually dropped to 8 percent, but by then early birds had racked up huge gains on paper.

After the failure

In the spring of 1993 the bank began limiting cash withdrawals, and by the end of last summer it closed. That would have been scandalous enough, and the investigation of how it happened is continuing. But the most interesting events may have come after the closure, when a few well-placed depositors managed some late withdrawals.

The magazine Duga published a list of the 26 most prominent names along with their total of deutsche mark withdrawals (a list contested by none of the people named), and they included the alleged war criminal and bank robber, Zeljko Raznatovic (also known as "Arkan"), with 350,000 marks, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Vladislav Jovanovic, with 44,000 marks, Yugoslav Prime Minister Radoje Kontic, with 32,000 marks, Serbian Radio-Television editor-in-chief Dragan Milanovic, with 38,370 marks, and an opposition party leader, Zoran Djindjic, with 170,000 marks.

Once again, the revelations hardly produced a ripple among those named.

Mr. Markovic, the former vice president, is hardly surprised at the lack of response.

"Today you have so many lies in our political life, and so many insinuations, that hardly anybody bothers to deny anything anymore," he said.

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