Assassins of reform

March 14, 2003

SERBIA IS IN very serious trouble after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, and that's not good news -- not for Serbia, not for its neighbors, not for the world.

It was a gangland slaying, in a country where the word "gangland" is sometimes difficult to separate from the word "Serbia." The authorities have already rounded up as many as 200 suspected mobsters, and have accused the so-called Zemun gang of carrying out the murder. The leaders of that gang had allied themselves with Mr. Djindjic in the period leading up to the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic two years ago, but this is not now a falling out among thieves. The prime minister was a genuine reformer and was about to embark on a crackdown against them.

The ties between the mob and the security services in Serbia are tangled and deep. Many of the strands reach back to Mr. Milosevic and his supporters. It was Mr. Djindjic who insisted on surrendering Mr. Milosevic to the international tribunal for war crimes -- and his days may have been numbered from that moment onward.

Lawlessness is good business for criminals and for those who purport to hunt criminals. It is not good for a country that hopes someday to join the European Union, or to ameliorate the bitter antagonisms of its neighbors. Now the government has launched a panicky crackdown, with police checks of cars and trains, and a likely suspension of some civil liberties. The question is, who among those who will execute the crackdown can be trusted? It is among the police and the security services that hostility to democracy and reform are strongest.

The recent history of the Balkans is a blot on the conscience of the world, but by the end of 2000 it seemed that the horrible nightmare was over -- thanks in part to NATO action over Kosovo, and to Mr. Djindjic's political success in Belgrade.

Many Serbs now fear that that could all start to unravel, thanks to a criminal-political hit in a city where the chieftains go by names like Bugsy, Idiot and Rat.

What does this mean for the rest of the world? That the Balkans are a headache that won't go away. That problems in troubled regions, once they've been solved, tend not to stay solved. That an exclusive focus on one bad actor at a time -- Saddam Hussein, for instance -- can lead to nasty surprises from unexpected directions.

The countries of the former Yugoslavia together form a cockpit for trouble. That in itself demands the attention -- the continuing, long-term attention -- of Washington and Western Europe. But now the death of Mr. Djindjic spells immediate turmoil.

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