SKOPJE, Macedonia, March 13 (UPI) -- The West killed Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic.
By forcing him, at times against his better judgment, to surrender one more war criminal, to pursue yet another mobster, to eliminate the remaining subsidies that rendered tolerable the drab and destitute lives of Serbs -- the West cast Djindjic as its lackey.
His compatriots often accused him of being a supine American stooge. According to recent opinion polls, Djindjic -- who became prime minister January 2001 -- trailed 10 other politicians in popularity. In truth, people also resented his vainglorious athleticism, conspicuous consumption, incisive intellect, his good looks, youth, energy, inexplicable wealth and meteoric rise to power.
He was a difficult man: haughty, stubborn, outspoken, abrasive and impatient. Aleksandar Tijanic, a Serb polemicist and columnist, called him "Little Slobo(dan Milosevic)" in an article in the daily Danas. His supporters dubbed him "The Manager" in recognition of his organizational skills.
Nor did the West sweeten the bitter nostrums it so liberally administered. Money promised never arrived, sanctions were repeatedly threatened, 10 years' worth of onerous -- and much disputed -- economic reforms were unwisely compressed into the past 26 months. Foreign investors -- with the exception of a few multinationals -- abstained.
In a belated attempt to emulate his erstwhile ally and current archival, the ubiquitously popular Milosevic-lite Vojislav Kostunica, Djindjic recently demanded a final settlement of the Kosovo gaping wound and courted the hitherto hostile Orthodox Church. But this turnaround was deemed by his countrymen to be merely his latest cynical ploy to revive his sagging political fortunes.
As leader of the Democratic Party in the 1990s, Djindjic cultivated a relationship with Yugoslavia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, and his reviled regime. He fraternized with the likes of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader and war criminal, and Zeljko Raznatovic ("Arkan"), the bloodstained militia chieftain and mafia capo.
During the Kosovo war in 1999, he infamously fled from bombed Serbia to tranquil Montenegro, claiming implausibly that, being branded by Milosevic "NATO's mercenary," his life was in the balance. An opportunistic dealmaker, he was dogged to his dying day by persistent rumors about his alleged contacts with the mafia.
Milorad Lukovic, head of the "Zemun gang," based in a Belgrade suburb, and former commander of the elite "Red Berets" police unit, helped Djindjic attain power by refusing Milosevic's orders to suppress dissent. Lukovic's group now is a prime suspect in the assassination.
Paradoxically, the death of Djindjic may restore stability to Serbia. A state of emergency has been declared -- tantamount in some ways to a military putsch. If the army, police and security organs don't leverage this fortuity into full control of the tormented country, Kostunica will likely re-emerge in due time to capture the Serb presidency and then appoint a reformer to the premiership.
Shocked by the atrocity, the umbrella grouping of 18 political parties, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, now in power, is bound to re-coalesce around a single leader. Radicals of all stripes will be flogged by a disgusted electorate. The relationship between the two uneasy constituents of "Serbia and Montenegro" will weaken, as the latter drifts away.
But in one respect Djindjic may be irreplaceable. He was a true economic reformer with the will to proffer painful solutions to apparently intractable problems.
The Djindjic-prodded government liberalized prices, restructured state finances, rescheduled Serbia's international debts, cleaned up the banking sector by closing down otherwise dysfunctional money laundering outfits, freed the labor market, widened the tax base by eliminating loopholes and exemptions and privatized aggressively.
The much-lauded governor of the central bank, Mladjan Dinkic, stabilized the Yugoslav (now Serbian) dinar, cut hyperinflation to low double digits and succeeded to have some Milosevic-era debts written off.
This earned them a three-year standby agreement with the International Monetary Fund, World Bank soft loans and close to $300 million to overhaul the crumbling energy infrastructure.
But the economy, despite growing at an annual rate of more than 3 percent since 1999, is still at less than half its already depressed 1989 level of about $2,700 in gross domestic product per capita. Serbia endured a decade of war, sanctions, civil wars, international pariah status, bombing, and refugees.
Its infrastructure is decrepit, its industry obsolete, its agriculture shattered to inefficient smithereens, its international trade criminalized. The foreign exchange reserves are depleted by years of customs evasion and theft. Serbia's exports may have climbed by one-tenth on Djindjic's watch -- but imports surged by one-third. The country's yawning trade deficit is menacing, as is the stagnation in its dilapidated industrial output.
Part 2 of this analysis will run Friday. Send your comments to: [email protected]