- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

NEW YORK — "I am not too late?" Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic grinned boyishly, at home in the brass and the glass of the Peninsula Hotel lobby in his rain-dusted black T-shirt. He had to ask that question often lately, as Yugoslavia struggles to catch up with its richer and more stable European neighbors. Rumors of his connections to cigarette smuggling, power struggles with Yugoslavia's president, and an international community wary of Slobodan Milosevic's legacy have challenged his reform efforts. That does not keep him from coming back to his international friends for aid, with a message that changes with the tide of pressure from his benefactors. Ten months after he and his countrymen ousted Mr. Milosevic from power, Mr. Djindjic acts both as choreographer and marionette in his country's experiment with democracy.
During our previous meeting, over four months ago before he had handed Mr. Milosevic over to the Hague, Mr. Djindjic had claimed that they did not yet have the evidence to try the corrupt ruler for war crimes. Serbia wanted to try him at home, the Hague was not providing them with enough evidence to expel him and he had planned to send other, more anonymous indictees to the war crimes tribunal, he said. The direness of Yugoslavia's economic and political situation dictated he act otherwise.
The handover of Milosevic was seen by the international community as the measuring stick for Yugoslavia's reform, and cooperation with the Hague tribunal was necessary for the country to receive promises of over $1 billion in aid at a donor's conference. According to his own accounts, he would face two major obstacles to complying with the will of the international community: Yugoslav President Kostunica, who had done little to remove Milosevic's allies from power, and the Constitutional Court, which was made up of Milosevic's appointees.
"Colin Powell called me on Saturday and asked me if this decision from the federal government … means cooperation with the Hague tribunal will go on," he said. He assured him that the executive order to extradite all indictees to the Hague would hold, and that there would be no obstacles to the handover. Mr. Powell took him at his word, and signaled the United States to attend the donor's conference for Yugoslavia. The day before the conference, the Constitutional Court suspended the order.
Going against Mr. Kostunica's desire to keep Mr. Milosevic close to home, Mr. Djindjic then used a provision of the Serbian constitution ironically added by Mr. Milosevic himself when he was Serbia's leader which would grant Serbia the authority to overrule a decision by the Yugoslav federal government in cases where the interests of Serbia are jeopardized. But the handover of the former strongman cannot be seen as the end of Yugoslavia's very necessary reforms. Equally threatening to the stability of the country is rampant corruption, a struggle from which Mr. Djindjic is not exempt.
Allegations that he had connections to the lucrative cigarette smuggling organized by Serbian gangs has pushed Mr. Djindjic to encourage authorities to investigate the rumors. Claiming to be a victim of both Mr. Milosevic's and Mr. Kostunica's "negative campaign," he asked for evidence of his involvement.
"These kind of rumors about my involvement in the cigarette smuggling business were around before the 5th of October," he said, referring to the date when Mr. Milosevic was overthrown. "The cigarette business is the best paid business, and cigarette smuggling in the world is the most profitable business, and Milosevic is keeping that for his family, and to allow me, on hit list, to be involved in the business which brings billions" would not make sense, he said.
Corruption had become a way of life for government, civilians and the police under Mr. Milosevic, but his removal has not eliminated the problem. The country that used a machine gun showdown to arrest its former leader has still been unable to put an Al Caponian justice system behind it.
A former secret service officer, Momir Gavrilovic, was shot dead Aug. 3 just hours after meeting with members of Mr. Kostunica's cabinet, where he gave documentation of connections between the Serbian mafia and Belgrade authorities. Mr. Kostunica confirmed that the meeting and the conversation about corruption took place, but has used the incident as an opportunity to undermine Mr. Djindjic. In a drastic power play, his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) announced Friday it was pulling its ministers out of the Serbian government because of Serbia's inability to stop organized crime. If Kostunica's party didn't get more ministerial positions for itself, the DSS said, parliament would have to vote the Serbian government out.
The good news is that, unlike other crime stories brought to the attention of government officials, this one has a traceable source. A member of the federal cabinet has come forward to tell what happened in that final conversation with Mr. Gavrilovic. Serbian officials are investigating it. Both the president and the prime minister may be implicated, or perhaps neither will. The process used by the new leaders to get to the bottom of murder and corruption will be a measuring stick for Yugoslavia's justice system. For both struggling reformers, it should never be too late to begin.
E-mail: [email protected]

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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