A Pact With The Devil

Zoran Djindjic showed a lot of courage, climbing alone into the armored Mercedes jeep on Admiral Geprat Street that cold October night in 2000. He was meeting the man Serbs know as Legija, "The Legionnaire" in Serbian, commander of the feared Special Operations Unit, a secret-police squad that had murdered its way from Croatia and Bosnia to Kosovo on behalf of Slobodan Milosevic. It was the eve of huge demonstrations that would bring down the hated dictator, which Djindjic was instrumental in organizing.

As they drove around Belgrade's darkened streets, Legija told him a secret. Milosevic had ordered the Red Berets to crack down, he said. "Huge s--t," he called it. "The orders are extreme." Legija had decided to disobey, he said. His police would not help Milosevic stay in power. All he asked in return, as Djindjic later told it, was that the protesters refrain from attacking the police. "I promise," said Djindjic.

It turned out to be a pact with the Devil, and last week it seems to have cost Djindjic his life. "I was afraid of the Red Berets most of all," he would recall after that fateful encounter, and no wonder. Legija was a paramilitary killer whose nickname comes from an alleged stint in the French Foreign Legion. Until recently there were no pictures of him; only the huge red rose tattoo on his neck identified him when he was seen in public, usually on disco crawls that often ended in gunplay. As for Djindjic, you might have thought a German-trained philosophy student turned politician would remember his Faust. Though his rival Vojislav Kostunica became president when Milosevic was deposed, Djindjic, the political operator, became prime minister. "The Manager," people called him. With friends in places high and low, he was able to get anything and everything done.

Consummately clever and full of energy and plans, Djindjic was the reformer who aimed to return his war-torn country to the European fold. He was a democrat, as well as the man who sent Milosevic and other Yugoslav leaders to The Hague. For both these reasons, many Serbs hated him. His killing highlights a grim fact that few outside Serbia fully understand. That's the frightening extent to which this sad country has been taken over by gangsters, how deeply Milosevic's legacy yet endures, and how precariously Serbia balances between advancing toward democracy--or sliding backward into the chaos of a failed criminal state.

Legija is Exhibit A. Beginning with that first nocturnal meeting with Djindjic, he made the most of his favored status in his newly free country. He hooked up with the Zemun Clan, a gang of war criminals and --secret policemen who traded in drugs and contraband cigarettes and built a booming business in extortion, kidnapping and political murder. With the help of allies in the police, they knocked off as many as 50 rival mobsters and wiped out all opposing mafia families. The 200-member clan earned hundreds of millions of euros a year, while authorities looked the other way.

This year, with the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Djindjic bested Kostunica to become Serbia's unchallenged leader. Flush with his new power, he began cracking down on the gangsters. When he began sending some of them to The Hague, too, the Devil allegedly decided to get his due. "Our last days are being counted," Legija ranted in an open letter published in local newspapers in January. He recalled their deal. "We gave the Serb people a free ride on Oct. 5, 2000," Legija said. "In a very short time they've forgotten everything." His secret-police friends in Humvees blocked the country's principal highway to protest the war-crimes arrest of colleagues in November 2001. In February one of the Zemun Clan gangsters, Dejan (Bugsy) Milenkovic, tried to run Djindjic's car off the road. On a nearby high-rise, snipers were secretly waiting--but Djindjic's guards kept him inside the car. Then last Wednesday, near that same Admiral Geprat Street where he first met Legija, Djindjic stepped out of his own armored Mercedes and was cut down by a pair of snipers 300 meters away in an upstairs office at No. 14. Hit in the stomach and chest, he died within the hour.

For all the region's turmoil, Djindjic was the first Balkan leader to be assassinated since World War I. Officials were quick to blame the Zemun Clan for the hit. Legija and his co-boss, Dusan (the Albanian) Spasojevic, disappeared--in advance. "What more do you need as an admission of guilt than the fact that they went underground?" said Serbia's deputy prime minister, Zarko Korac. He called it an attempted coup by the underworld. Some wondered if it might yet succeed. "Nobody can completely rule out new terrorist acts," said Acting Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic. "We have to decide who really rules this country: the mafia and its assassins, or its elected leaders."

That is indeed the question. Djindjic and others toppled Milosevic only with the collusion of the secret police--it was, in fact, Legija and his men who ultimately arrested the dictator and sent him to prison--and afterward had to live in uneasy coexistence. What happens next will determine whether Serbia slides further as a failed state, dominated by gangsters, or whether it can hope for something better.

The initial signs are encouraging. Police are trying to unravel the plot and are looking for Legija. Scores of Zemun gangsters were rounded up, including four who agreed to turn state's evidence against Legija and friends. Two prominent former secret-service leaders were arrested. Police in body armor stormed and then bulldozed The Fortress, the clan's headquarters in the Belgrade suburb of Zemun--a building that looked like a shopping center from the outside but had a luxurious mansion and swimming pool behind its Potemkin facade. Emergency rule was imposed throughout Serbia. Army and regular police units declared their loyalty.

Djindjic was often derided as a cynical political operator, the sort of man who really would treat with the Devil, and never enjoyed widespread popularity. But his killing changed that overnight. Hundreds of thousands turned out for his funeral--the biggest crowd since Tito died. "If there had been no Djindjic, Milosevic would still be in power," said one mourner, Dragoljub Petronijevic, a 65-year-old pensioner.

Last week's tragedy shows that the battle to exorcise Milosevic goes on. He left the security apparatus hopelessly riddled with criminals, accustomed to exercising political power and unwilling to give it up. At a memorial service, an aide recalled Djindjic's reaction after the first attempted assassination. "You can shoot me, you can even kill me, but this country and its democratic system will still function.'' The world can only hope that's so.