Reports of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's assassination in Belgrade Wednesday, allegedly at the hands of gangsters, dominated Thursday's European papers.
International editions of Germany's Die Welt, Tagesspiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Italy's Corriere Della Sera all led with stories on the killing and the shocked reactions of European statesmen. So did dailies in Eastern Europe. "Assassin Kills Serbian Premier," read the five-column headline in the Czech Republic's Lidove Noviny. Prague daily Mlada Fronta Dnesemphasized the event's importance by placing Djindjic on a list of slain political leaders going back to U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
Most British and French papers, on the other hand, put the news inside, with developments over Iraq drowning out the murder of reformist Djindjic, who was the most Western-minded politician of the nascent post-Milosevic era in the former Yugoslavia. Of the major London dailies, only the Independent, the Financial Times,and the Daily Telegraphfound space for Djindjic on their front pages. The Times, however, ran a dramatic first-person account inside by reporter Christopher Condon, who had apparently been lunching at the nearby Monument Café at the time of the shooting. France's Libération painted a more human portrait of Djindjic, referring to him by his nickname, Zoki, and calling him "a leader of two faces." The article detailed the compromises he made on his road to power—from his time as a Yugoslav exile studying with German philosopher Jürgen Habermas to his wartime support for Bosnian Serb extremists. Despite his good looks, the article said, he was never as popular as his older rival, former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.
In Serbia itself, the tabloid Blic provided sketchy details of the killing, citing eyewitness accounts that the assassins—the paper used the plural—made their getaway in a Mercedes or a BMW or both. Despite conflicting reports over which building the shots came from, Blic said: "There is no doubt that professionals killed [the] Serbian prime minister. … Apart from these two shots from snipers that injured Djindjic fatally, no other shots were heard." Indeed, within a few hours of the early afternoon slaying, there seemed to be no doubt about who was responsible, as the government announced it had issued warrants for the arrest of the top 23 leaders of an organized crime syndicate known as "Zemunski Klan" ("the Zemun Gang"), one of whose members had allegedly tried to kill Djindjic last month. The names of all 23 fugitives are posted on the Serbian government Web site, complete with their Mafia handles.
As part of a recent crackdown on organized crime, the Djindjic government had been poised to sign the arrest warrants of the Zemun Gang leaders yesterday, even prior to the assassination, sources told independent Belgrade radio station B92. The gang, led by former special police commander Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, represents a nexus of state security services, organized crime, and alleged war criminals. Amid fears that elements of the state security apparatus might be involved, news agency Beta quoted a Democratic Party official warning, "If relevant bodies do not find [the] assassins, they are accomplices."
Britain's Guardian portrayed the murder as a power struggle between warlords and a democratic government that has only just begun to exercise power: "[Djindjic's] murder, and the boldness with which it was executed, in broad daylight outside his office in the center of Belgrade, raises the question of who is really running Serbia." Djindjic emerged from the shadow of Kostunica last month, when the last remnants of Yugoslavia dissolved and reformed as a new federation called the Union of Serbia and Montenegro. Kostunica, a more tepid reformer than Djindjic, has twice failed to win enough votes to capture the presidency of Serbia. Djindjic's death, therefore, leaves Serbia without any elected leader. (For more on the Serbian power vacuum, see this BBC backgrounder.)
B92's Web site ran an interview with Zarko Korac, Serbia's deputy prime minister who was named yesterday as Djindjic's temporary replacement, in which he said the Zemun Gang "is probably the most well-organized gang in the Balkans, with millions of euros obtained from kidnappings. They have everything." Korac rejected calls from the nationalist opposition to form a broad coalition government. "The political scene has crystallized itself. One side wants reforms even at the price of being killed, on the other you have pseudo-heroes who are murderers," he told the station.
In the Financial Times, Mark Medish wrote that Djindjic's murder holds important lessons for post-Saddam Iraq. "Keeping an eye on this corner of the world is particularly difficult when the political focus has shifted overwhelmingly to the war on terrorism and to the countries in the 'axis of evil'. But we ignore the Balkans at our peril." How fitting, therefore, to see that major newspapers pushed the killing of Serbia's most prominent reformer to second-tier billing behind the diplomatic wrangling at the United Nations over how do deal with Saddam Hussein.