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CORRUPTION AND ORGANIZED CRIME

Serbia:

THE HEART OF DARKNESS

By: Philip SCHWARM

The snake of organized crime in Serbia has zigzagged through wars, sanctions, poverty and political instability, becoming broader, longer, more insatiable and more venomous along the way.

It is difficult to find words for the shock Serbia has experienced on March 12 when its Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated. Is the state a hostage of mafia clans? Have professional murderers become the holders of the monopoly of power? Who is controlling the country - the elected representatives of the citizens or mafia bosses according to the rules of their own hierarchy?

At the proposal of the Government, Natasa Micic, Acting President of Serbia, proclaimed the state of emergency. Police operation called "The Sabre" was launched at the same time. Both were a desperate move of self-defence that has come too late - there was no other way. The first arrests confirmed the long warnings coming from a part of the public: business empires, wholesale of narcotics, a long series of never clarified murders from "ambush", ransoms for kidnapped wealthy persons worth millions, racketeering of firms, privileged business deals, arms and strategic raw material smuggling - none of these was nor could have been possible without strongholds in the judiciary and the police and, above all, without the State Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Serbia structures by measure and according to the needs of Slobodan Milosevic.

It is nowadays futile to debate why Milosevic's heritage was not done away with immediately after October 5 and whose fault it is. It is futile because even after it had taken over power, the entire Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) remained fascinated with the apparatus which had operated soaked in blood but reliably for more than a decade; it is futile because mutual deterrence and insinuations have been the main preoccupation of coalition partners in the past two years; futile, because of influential shady party financiers, all forms of demimonde who got hold of sinecures in state administration and management boards of large systems, converted "businessmen" from among Milosevic's ranks and their "good services", police and army officers whose impotence to do anything on October 5 was recognized as their "meritorious service". Should apart from the listed, one mention the Hague Tribunal, along with social collapse, weakness of institutions, various transition ailments and everything else that makes the nightmare of political life in Serbia? There is simply nobody who is innocent.

It all began in the beginning of the nineties of the last century. For the purpose of waging wars in which "Serbia has not participated" and holding power in the country, an underground infrastructure was created. Under the umbrella of State Security Service of Serbia's Ministry of Internal Affairs ruled by its head Jovica Stanisic, a countless pack of satellites and sycophants found their place, along with certain political parties, such as the Serb Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, leaders of the Serb Democratic Party in former Krajina and Republika Srpska, paramilitary formations such as the Serb Volunteers' Guards of Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, businessmen of the rank of Dafina Milanovic and Jezdimir Vasiljevic, state officials personified by the head of the Federal Customs Administration Mihalj Bracika Kertes and others. Depending on Milosevic's needs and only in harmony with them, the activities of those listed developed and spread: with the most vulgar demagogy and chauvinism Seselj made every reasonable public dialogue senseless; Radovan Karadzic and Milan Martic were the nominal bearers of the wars that were the fuel of Milosevic's autocracy and status of the national leader; Arkan and those similar to him with their private armies executed the filthiest jobs in battlefields and otherwise; Milanovic and Vasiljevic the filthiest jobs in battlefields and otherwise; Milanovic and Vasiljevic squeezed the last pennies of foreign currency from the citizens, and businessmen close to the "Court", such as Bogoljub Karic or Miroslav Miskovic, grew rich on privileged deals; the customs was, after all, no more than a service for collecting cash that went to various black funds. If one added to this smuggling of cigarettes, oil and other strategic and deficient goods controlled by the regime, racketeering of enterprises which were more or less successful, narcotics trade and human trafficking controlled by the Service, an endless series of professional murders caused by division of the described market, the saying that "every state has its mafia, but only in Serbia the mafia has its state" becomes understandable. How can anyone expect the police to arrest murderers when most of them are holders of its identity cards? How can mafia bosses be taken to court when most of them, like Arkan, are considered to be reputable citizens and patriots? How can economic crime be prevented when practically not a single deal could be wrapped up without political connections and large commissions?

All this could not last forever, of course. Milosevic's regime in the end devoured itself. But, its mechanisms and levers of power survived. But first things first.

Political parties continued operating in a legally unregulated space. Although announced pompously for a long time, the law on financing political parties still has not made it to the agenda of the Assembly; accustomed to shift around in all possible ways in order to get the money and without any prejudice about its origin while it was in the opposition, the currently ruling coalition has not manifested readiness to end this practice. There are more than one reason for this. Primarily, there is the influence of financiers on party cadre rotation, but also there is the fact that a large number of minor parties - which make up the majority in the assembly - owe their survival to donors. And since the latter are not exactly known as prodigal, in return they demand (and get) both direct political protection for their business deals, and postponement and mitigation of various legal regulations that are inconvenient for them. The law on telecommunications and broadcasting aimed at introducing order into Serbia's media space, is not coming into force because it is obviously inconvenient for powerful media lords since it would cost them a pretty penny.

All this also reflected on state institutions. Ruined professional staff during Milosevic's rule and required party affiliation afterwards, were an additional impulse for corruption. This was especially crushingly evident in the judiciary. On the one hand there was the old staff utterly entangled in organized crime and corruption ready to defend their clients - members of mafia gangs and "businessmen of dubious reputation" at all costs, and on the other people whose qualifications are mostly founded on party membership.
The paralysis of the judiciary is, therefore, a logical outcome: all reforms and all legal solutions are worth nothing if there is nobody to implement them. How deeply the judiciary has sunk is testified by the fact that practically not a single trial against Milosevic's leading supporters has been completed, that none of those who have started wars and plundered the country have been convicted and that not even Dragoljub Milanovic, former director of Radio-Television Serbia, was sent to prison to serve his ten-year long sentence because he was found responsible for the death of RTS workers during NATO bombing because the court enabled him to remain at large even after the verdict had become final, and he used it to escape… He was arrested in Montenegro only during operation "Sabre".

One should be honest and admit that the current regime is to a large extent aware of it all. State monopoly in oil industry and introduction of excise tax stamps on cigarettes have significantly reduced smuggling. Besides, laws on the struggle against corruption were passed and public insight into privatization and public purchases was enabled to a certain extent. However, when the necessary anti-corruption investigations and court proceedings failed to be launched, the struggle often has just declarative significance.

The situation was and still is the worst in police and secret services. For more than a decade systematically criminalized and abused, the MUP has become closely intermingled with organized crime. What began with arming and offering logistic support to paramilitary units in the end led to these structures becoming most powerful within police ranks. This refers, of course, to the Special Operations Unit (JSO) better known as the "Red Berets". This unit composed of the "most carefully selected" members of all Serb paramilitary units was theoretically an elite unit for most delicate jobs. In fact, it was a private army of the State Security Services in charge of state crime on the highest level, misdeeds and war crimes at the battlefields, and support to the most powerful mafia clans. Now when it has finally been disbanded, it is clear that the members of JSO have not only assassinated Djindjic, but also murdered the former president of the presidency of Serbia Ivan Stambolic, made an attempt on the life of Vuk Draskovic, and committed a whole series of murders in all parts of Belgrade. And that is not all. The footsteps of these men lead practically to all significant channels of narcotics smuggling, every major case of kidnapping, every profitable criminal job… And in order not to cause any confusion, this was a perfectly legal unit which is part of the MUP.

Why did JSO manage to keep such power after October 5, there are several explanations. Among other, there was a "nonaggression pact" between Milorad Lukovic Legija as the commander of the Unit - now accused of having ordered the assassination of the Prime Minister - and late Djindjic at the moment when the citizens were overthrowing Milosevic from power in the streets; the role of Red Berets is also mentioned in the conflicts at the south of Serbia in 2001; it was repeated that every state must have such a special unit and that this one, if enabled to pull itself together and become more civilized, was perfectly alright. The essence is somewhere else, though. When it came to power, DOS took over State Security Services intact. The only one who was arrested was the former head Radomir Markovic and nobody else - the entire dubious structure remained intact. Not a single step was taken even after it had been established that the heads of the Services had stored 640 kilograms of heroine into the safe deposit of Komercijalna banka without a single written document to corroborate it, nor when it became evident that all the trails of various professional liquidations led to them. There was no political will for squaring of accounts with them, and it was lacking because there was fear of these structures. How powerful they were is testified by the rebellion of JSO in November 2001: as the Government has now admitted, at the time it had no instruments to oppose them so that all the demands of Red Berets were met. Among other, the then head of the State Security Services Goran Petrovic was removed from the post and Milorad Bracanovic, the former security officer from JSO, was appointed deputy of the new head Andrija Savic.

Apart from their almost endless power in all parts of Serbia, the described structures had their collaborators in the whole region. Organized crime operates by the principle of multinational companies, in other words, nationality is of no importance as far as money is concerned. Political and every other instability in the surroundings enabled a whole series of illegal jobs and adequate connections - all criminal groups of the territory of former Yugoslavia support each other: borders have never existed for narcotics, arms, deficient goods, stolen cars and similar. The more shooting was going on in Kosovo, Macedonia or Bosnia & Herzegovina, the better were the conditions for all kinds of this "business".

Late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was completely aware that the existing situation had become unsustainable. The appointment of a special prosecutor and a series of other measures made it clear to everybody that time was coming for settling of accounts with organized crime. The murderers were quicker, and what happened afterwards is known…

The state of emergency in Serbia was abolished, the law on criminal proceedings was made draconically more severe, a considerable number of members of various criminal clans is behind bars, and with them former head of General Staff of the Army of Yugoslavia Nebojsa Pavkovic, former head of state security services Jovica Stanisic, his deputy Franko Simatovic alias Frenki, former head of Security Administration of the Army of Yugoslavia Aca Tomic, Arkan's widow and folk star Svetlana Raznatovic, the entire commanding staff of JSO and among them Djindjic's direct murderer, already mentioned Bracanovic, a few prosecutors and judges… The police has declared that the spine of organized crime was broken, and big trials are in preparation… However, if investigations are interrupted (if and) when they come close to individuals from the current administration - on any level and whatever post they might be occupying - it will all come down to just slightly more empty talk, and the underground will find ways to get reorganized.