Opposition pragmatist takes charge in Belgrade City's new mayor adjusts to political turmoil with ease

February 23, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- As insults thundered down from the podium in front of him, Zoran Djindjic sat impassively in the front row of the City Council chamber, waiting for the storm to blow over.

The first non-Communist mayor of Belgrade since 1945 and now in the catbird seat in his campaign to oust President Slobodan Milosevic, Djindjic appeared unfazed last week that his inauguration session was going awry as allies of Milosevic taunted him.

Few were surprised at his calm. Djindjic, 44, is widely seen as the most pragmatic of the three opposition leaders who led demonstrations to recognize opposition election victories. He has traveled through the turmoil of the country's political spectrum from anarchism to liberalism to nationalism and back to liberalism.

In the early 1970s, he was jailed briefly by the Communist Yugoslav government for forming an independent student organization. Three years ago, in a scene that his foes will not let him forget, he savored roasted ox on a snowy mountaintop above the shelled city of Sarajevo with his ally of the moment, Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian political leader of the Bosnian war.

Last year, he was traveling around Serbian-held Bosnia campaigning for Karadzic, choosing to overlook the fact that Karadzic has been indicted by the United Nations tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on charges of war crimes.

Earlier this month, attired in an elegant suit, he was in Paris garnering support for the anti-Milosevic cause among French leaders and espousing the need for a market economy and freedom of the press.

Djindjic makes few apologies for his series of political about-faces.

"If you want honesty, go to church," he says.

Djindjic grew up in the relative sophistication of Belgrade. The son of a Yugoslav army officer, he studied philosophy at Belgrade University and won a scholarship to study at Constance University in West Germany.

Djindjic returned to Yugoslavia in 1979 to teach and to write for the Literary Review, an influential dissident magazine. His articles stood out as the only non-nationalistic contributions.

As communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, he joined in 1990 with 11 other Belgrade intellectuals to write the liberal platform of their new political organization, the Democratic Party. But then in 1991, as nationalism swept Serbia, Djindjic says he decided he either had to ride the tide or be drowned by it.

"I personally couldn't be more remote from Serbian nationalism," he told a session of the Democratic Party leadership. "But it is on the agenda, and it will not go away if we choose to ignore it. We cannot allow our party to disappear because of our personal intellectual preferences."

But when Djindjic sensed that nationalist sentiment was waning near the end of the Balkans war, he turned to the economy as a defining issue. In particular, he hammered at the theme of cronyism and how Milosevic and his top officials had destroyed the country's economy.

For the moment, Djindjic's pragmatism and his capacity to grasp issues quickly appear to be winning him important support.

One of Milosevic's staunchest backers, the director of the country's largest private bank, Bogoljub Karic, recently split with the Serbian leader and has started to show interest in Djindjic as an alternative.

"I think it is very good that Djindjic is going to be mayor," Karic said, suggesting that Djindjic knew how to reform the economy. "If he passes that test, he can be prime minister."

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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