Mourners pack streets to honor premier

Many hope government will root out corruption

March 16, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro - Hundreds of thousands of Serbs lined the streets of Belgrade yesterday to pay their respects to Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated last week, apparently by an underworld gang.

Djindjic's coffin, draped in the Serbian flag, made its way through the capital on a gun carriage, watched by the biggest crowd since the street protests that toppled President Slobodan Milosevic more than two years ago.

Djindjic's widow, Ruzica, and their two children joined the cortege at the gates of the city's main cemetery, walking at the head of a procession that included dignitaries from around the world.

Djindjic, who was instrumental in the overthrow of Milosevic, was buried with full military honors after a funeral unlike any since that of Josip Tito, the founder of Communist Yugoslavia, in 1980.

As prime minister, however, Djindjic was not popular. After decades of autocratic rule, many people were suspicious of his tendency to centralize power. But his determination to confront the murky alliances of war criminals and racketeers that took control of Serbia under Milosevic earned him respect, particularly abroad. It may also have cost him his life.

Since Djindjic was shot outside his office Wednesday, police have detained more than 180 suspects and destroyed the house of the leader of a Belgrade gang linked to the assassination. But the gang's leader, Dusan Spasojevic, and other top members remain at large.

In a speech at the graveside, George Papandreou, the Greek foreign minister, praised Djindjic's efforts to transform his country from an international pariah into a candidate for European Union membership and vowed that Greece, which holds the European Union's rotating presidency, would do everything possible to give Djindjic's successor greater support.

"In this moment of tragedy, your vision remains alive," Papandreou said. "Your death strengthens our will to make your vision a reality."

Mourners also expressed hope that Djindjic's killing, linked to a criminal network that retains influence in the security forces, would unite politicians behind a concerted effort to weed out Milosevic-era holdovers, whom they blamed for holding back Serbia's development.

"The only good thing about this disaster is that it exposes the utter pointlessness of any further obsession with Milosevic, the past and totalitarianism," said Gordana Andjelkovic, a 30-year-old teacher.

"Every big movement in this country's history has been built on death and suffering, and I think this loss will rally people behind serious change."

There are indications that the government is getting more serious about taking on the networks of shady business people, wartime paramilitaries and common criminals who have long held sway here.

Among those detained since the assassination are two of the men who know most about Milosevic's links to the Serbian forces and militias that swept through Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s.

Under the state of emergency imposed this week, Jovica Stanisic, the former head of Milosevic's internal security network, and Franko Simatovic, a one-time paramilitary commander, can be held for up to 30 days. It is not clear if they will be interviewed by intelligence officials who cooperate with the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, where Milosevic is being tried.

"Stanisic was at the center of the most unpleasant things that characterized Milosevic's rule," a Western diplomat said. "What happens to him now will tell us a lot about where the government wants to go from here."

Thoughts will now turn to selecting Djindjic's successor. His Democratic Party is expected to name Zoran Zivkovic, a 42-year-old former interior minister, as its new leader today. He will face a difficult challenge. The government is a fractious coalition of 17 parties, and few political analysts expect Zivkovic to make much progress with reforms before he is forced into a general election.

That said, people now have renewed expectations of progress after a year of infighting between Djindjic and his main rivals that brought the reform process to an effective standstill.

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