August 23, 2001

The Serbian Standoff

A week after the Macedonian government signed a pact practically disemboweling its own country, Western media vultures continue to pick at its carcass in eager anticipation of NATO's impending deployment. Apparently, it is exceptionally newsworthy that NATO is still deciding whether or not to send troops – as if that was ever in question – and even more newsworthy to fawn over the recently legitimized UCK bandit leader, Ali Ahmeti, who sits behind the US and NATO flags and talks "peace." So when Ahmeti's merry men do what they have done in Kosovo over 170 times – namely, blow up a 14th century Orthodox Christian monastery – the helpful reporters see to it that Macedonians are blamed, and the ever-serious US Department of State issues a stern "shame on you" to "whoever did this."

Yet as Macedonia sinks even lower on its knees under the voyeuristic gaze of UCK cheerleaders, its neighbor to the north is locked in a dramatic struggle that might just change the balance of power in the region. Hard as it may be to do so, as Skopje is sacked by the barbarians, it is worth diverting one's attention to the unfolding drama some 200 miles north, in Belgrade.


Three weeks ago, on August 3, a retired State Security (SDB) official by the name of Momir Gavrilovic visited the office of President Vojislav Kostunica, and talked to his advisors about the links between the Serbian government of Zoran Djindjic and organized crime. We will never know what made the habitually quiet "Gavra" (as his wife called him) talk. He was gunned down the same evening.

It might have been dismissed as just another mysterious gangland hit so common in the last days of Milosevic's government and the early days of Djindjic's regime. But this assassination exploded right in the government's face. When the Belgrade daily Blic cited inside sources from Kostunica's office claiming that Gavrilovic discussed government corruption, Djindjic's henchmen Vladan Batic and Zarko Korac immediately unleashed a barrage of vitriol against the paper. Police interrogated the editor and demanded that the editor reveal the name of his source. The editor refused. On August 9, President Kostunica confirmed the Blic story, detonating the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

Djindjic – on a secret lobbying trip to Washington, after selling Serbia's computer market to Microsoft – took a week to cry foul. By then, the cat was out of the bag; the unholy alliance between Djindjic, Montenegro's despot Milo Djukanovic, and the most powerful criminal clans in Serbia was now out in the open. The simmering conflict between Djindjic and Kostunica exploded, and the gloves came off.


On August 17, Kostunica's party struck back, announcing it was quitting the Serbian government and calling for a review of its practices. This threw Djindjic's cabinet into chaos and stoked fears that the entire regime could collapse. Battle lines were quickly drawn, and the fight for Serbia's future began.

At a press conference on the 21st, Dragan Marsicanin, the Chairman of the Serbian Parliament and one of the leaders in Kostunica's DSS, cited a plethora of issues his party intended to raise. Among them: that the government was deceiving the people, that it had not implemented any of its promised reforms, that it did not function properly, that it established monopolies and took over thousands of enterprises, that its Prime Minister maintains connections with mobsters, and that the current economic and political crisis in Serbia is largely a product of the current government, not its Socialist predecessor. This type of thinking in a country that has until recently blamed everything but foul weather on Milosevic is nothing short of revolutionary.


It was not so long ago that Djindjic was riding high on the wave of treacherous accomplishments: he successfully monopolized the Serbian oil and cigarette trade in the government's hands, arrested, abducted and delivered Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague Inquisition – destroying the Serbian and Yugoslav constitution in the process – and just about destroyed his only serious rival, the increasingly less popular Kostunica.

And yet Kostunica hardly put up a fight – until now. Statesmanship does not accept "Better late than never," as an excuse. Kostunica's inaction in June and July cost him much in the eyes of the people. How much exactly – enough to be defeated in the slugfest with Djindjic? – only time will tell.


It is nothing short of a miracle that a coalition of no less than 18 parties spanning the entire political spectrum has survived this long. Still incongruously called the "Democratic Opposition," the ruling hydra more resembles the "Opposite of Democracy," with parties and egotistical leaders that can hardly stomach each other, and never agree on how the country should be organized.

As things are now, only two of the 18 parties – Djindjic's Democrats (DS) and Kostunica's Serbian Democrats (DSS) – stand any chance on their own. Others barely have a program and a functioning office. Such a pack of nonentities would have easily bankrupted a much wealthier country in six months.

If elections were held tomorrow, the DSS would triumph convincingly, and all the freeloaders that jumped on Kostunica's victorious bandwagon last year could be left behind in the dust. Djindjic, whose popularity has steadily run in single digits and who came to power only because his candidacy list ran under Kostunica's name, faces certain defeat. Kostunica's revolt opens up prospects for criminal charges against the wannabe despot, on grounds ranging from embezzlement, smuggling and corruption, to crimes against the Constitution and high treason. Given such stellar prospects, Djindjic is likely to put up a major fight.


Evidence of that came on Tuesday, as Djindjic's allies took aim at the helpless, deceased Gavrilovic. A certain Dragan Karleusa, introduced as "deputy police superintended for organized crime," alleged that Gavrilovic was a mobster involved in smuggling, drug-running, murders and extortion. He was backed up by police minister Dusan Mihajlovic, who also denied Kostunica's charges of rising crime rates.

This is the same Karleusa, then identified as "police captain," who was in charge of the infamous "refrigerator truck" investigation, trotted out to justify president Milosevic's abduction in late June and then forgotten – except when recycled by some pro-NATO papers, who make it more sinister with each telling. So does Karleusa run war crimes cases, organized crime cases, or is he just the loyal underling that Minister Mihajlovic uses for dirty work such as character assassination?

Mihajlovic is a shady businessman who made a fortune during Milosevic's "dictatorship," and saved his fortune from Djindjic's Great Looting Tax on "extra profit" by becoming Herr Kanzler's most rabid henchman. His wielding of the police ministry as a baton against all of Djindjic's enemies caused the DSS to demand his resignation even before the Gavrilovic affair.

Djindjic's gambit is transparent. Had Gavrilovic really been a shady figure, that would have been mentioned on the night of his murder, not two weeks later. Belgrade may have over a million residents, but it is still a surprisingly small city. Its rumor mill has worked all too well for over two centuries. Gavrilovic's shady past, if there had been one, would have been known right away.

Besides, it is hard to keep a straight face when Djindjic's henchmen accuse the deceased of befriending a mobster, when Djindjic himself has been known to use the very same mobster's private jet to visit his sponsors in the Western world.


While abysmal economic policies such as confiscatory taxation and state monopolies' price gouging, coupled with the total lack of payoff for delivering Milosevic, are quickly turning Djindjic's domestic footing into quicksand, he still gets plenty of backing from foreign centers of power. The Guardian readily echoed his arguments that any questioning would "destabilize" the government – and that Kostunica was making much ado about nothing in order to make a power grab! Instruments of US propaganda overseas are also openly siding with Djindjic.

Foreign support for Djindjic (and disdain for Kostunica) is nothing new. It could, however, embolden Djindjic to resort to unrestricted political warfare, and embolden factions that seek to further weaken Serbia – from Djukanovic to the Vojvodina separatists and even the Albanian bandits in southern Serbia.

One of the early casualties of the clash might be the Yugoslav ambassador to Washington, Milan St. Protic. Belgrade papers announced Wednesday and confirmed Thursday that Protic would be relieved from that sensitive post, after acting like a loose cannon in the Imperial Capital for months.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, many of which have been published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

The Serbian Standoff

Macedonia's Futile Surrender

Murdering Macedonia

Rambouillet Repeated?

Empire's Willing Servants

Kostunica's Choice

Betrayal in Belgrade

The Empire Shows Its Hand

The Return of Kings

Meditations On The Edge Of The Abyss


Terms of Betrayal

Presevo – A False Victory

The Balkans: Land of Delusions

Enemies at the Gates

ICG's Blueprint for Destruction

Kosovo: Between Death and Taxes

Madness in the Mountains: Montenegro's Looming Secession

A House Divided


Empire at the Gates

Macedonian Maelstrom

Pax Americana

The Fourth Balkan War

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana's Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

Bandits on the Border

It's the Spelling, Stupid

Zoran Djindjic: Serbia's Richard III

Wheels of Injustice

The Tragedy of Bosnia

The Suspended Castle

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed


There are two possible ways of resolving the present crisis. Either the DSS will cut a deal with the rest of the Djindjic-dominated coalition and lose face (again) by bartering honesty for two or three ministerial posts in a "reconstructed" government, or the coalition will be torn asunder, and new elections called. In that case, though polls indicate that Kostunica's victory is by no means a foregone conclusion, one ought to recall that polls predicted DOS would lose the September 2000 elections.

The collapse of DOS would be a good thing. Whoever emerges victorious from the present power struggle will have a clear mandate to shape Serbia and Yugoslavia as they wish, as well as the burden of responsibility if that process backfires.

In the final analysis, the days to come will be a crucial test of Kostunica's already dubious willingness to hold firm on principle and stand up to foreign interference, Djindjic's ability (or lack thereof) to continue serving foreign masters without being sheltered by Kostunica's reputation, and the Serbian people's will and ability to decide their own fate.

Who runs Serbia and Yugoslavia might not seem particularly important, but it carries wide-ranging implications for the region. A victory for pro-independence Constitutionalists (as opposed to "pragmatic" Westernists) would be a serious blow to Imperial control of the Balkans, one that would – let us hope – serve as an example for Serbia's neighbors.

The Empire's bullying insistence that all resistance to its domination is a priori futile is an illusion that needs only be successfully shattered once. No amount of tanks, bombs and men would be able to put it together again afterwards.

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