- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

The assassination on Wednesday of Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, was heard around the world, and it represents a terrible loss for the Serbian people. But the doomsday predictions may be too pessimistic. The assassins, presumably underworld bosses, took a gamble in killing Mr. Djindjic, and it remains to be seen whether it will pay off.

Mr. Djindjic's contributions to Serbian and Balkan progress and stability were numerous and unique. He exhibited a civic-minded rebelliousness in his college days by protesting communism. He also played a pivotal role in rallying widespread popular support for elections in October 2000, which the leader of the former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, lost. Mr. Djindjic let Vojislav Kostunica stand as the presidential candidate, and he became his prime minister. After the union of Serbia and Montenegro, Mr. Kostunica's post was eliminated and Mr. Djindjic became Serbia's leader.

Mr. Djindjic impressed Serbian nationalists with his reverence for the country's national identity and sovereignty, but he also believed in a tight alliance with Western Europe, and helped move the country's center of gravity in that direction. His dogged pursuit of democratic and economic reforms gave progress a foothold in Serbia.

Mr. Djindjic cultivated a team of dedicated democratic reformers who may be willing to pick up where he left off. Furthermore, the slaying could highlight for Mr. Kostunica, still Serbia's most popular politician, just how much Serbia's Mafia threaten the country's welfare.

The mobsters, meanwhile, just might generate a backlash. The Serbian people demonstrated through their courageous street protests more than two years ago that they are willing to counter brutal tyranny with massive resolve. It isn't likely this population is willing to stand by and let progress unravel. The police arrested scores of suspected mob figures the past few days.

Of course, the other possibility is that the mobsters calculated correctly, and their assassination of Mr. Djindjic will chill democratic reform and pursuit of law and order. Surely, the Balkans' stability remains precarious, and resolving the final status of U.N.-controlled Kosovo must be carefully paced. Peacekeepers should be kept in the area as long as, but no longer, than necessary. The United States and Europe have invested billions of dollars in the Balkans, and should be recognized for their commitment. This focus shouldn't waver.

The Djindjic assassination should serve as a warning, but is not yet a cause for dire projections. The current power-sharing arrangement in Serbia should continue to provide stability, and elections should be held soon. With the firm resolve of its people, Serbian politicians and the international community, the assassination may be long remembered in Serbia, but won't have a lasting global impact.

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