The quisling of Belgrade
The murdered Serbian prime minister was a reviled western stooge whose economic reforms brought misery
Friday March 14, 2003
Tributes to Zoran Djindjic, the assassinated prime minister of Serbia, have been pouring in. President Bush led the way, praising his "strong leadership", while the Canadian government's spokesman extolled a "heralder of democracy" and Tony Blair spoke of the energy Djindjic had devoted to "reforming Serbia".
In western newspaper obituaries Djindjic has been almost universally acclaimed as an ex-student agititator who bravely led a popular uprising against a tyrannical dictator and endeavoured to steer his country into a new democratic era.
But beyond the CNN version of world history, the career of Zoran Djindjic looks rather different. Those who rail against the doctrine of regime change should remember that Iraq is far from being the first country where the US and other western governments have tried to engineer the removal of a government that did not suit their strategic interests. Three years ago it was the turn of Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia.
In his recent biography of Milosevic, Adam LeBor reveals how the US poured $70m into the coffers of the Serb opposition in its efforts to oust the Yugoslav leader in 2000. On the orders of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a covert US Office of Yugoslav Affairs was set up to help organise the uprising that would sweep the autocratic Milosevic from power.
At the same time, there is evidence that underworld groups, controlled by Zoran Djindjic and linked to US intelligence, carried out a series of assassinations of key supporters of the Milosevic regime, including Defence Minister Pavle Bulatovic and Zika Petrovic, head of Yugoslav Airlines.
With Slobo and his socialist party finally toppled, the US got the "reforming" government in Belgrade it desired. The new President Vojislav Kostunica received the bouquets, but it was the State Department's man, Zoran Djindjic, who held the levers of power - and he certainly did not let his Washington sponsors down.
The first priority was to embark on a programme of "economic reform" - new-world-order-speak for the selling of state assets at knockdown prices to western multinationals. Over 700,000 Yugoslav enterprises remained in social ownership and most were still controlled by employee-management committees, with only 5% of capital privately owned. Companies could only be sold if 60% of the shares were allocated to workers.
Djindjic moved swiftly to change the law and the great sell-off could now begin. After two years in which thousands of socially owned enterprises have been sold (many to companies from countries which took part in the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia), last month's World Bank report was lavish in its praise of the Djindjic government and its "engagement of international banks in the privatisation process".
But it wasn't just state assets that Djindjic was under orders to sell. Milosevic had to go too, for a promised $100m, even if it effectively meant kidnapping him in contravention of Yugoslav law, and sending him by RAF jet to a US-financed show trial at the Hague. When a man has sold his country's assets, its ex-president and his main political rivals, what else is there to sell? Only the country itself. And in January this year Djindjic did just that. Despite the opposition of most of its citizens, the "heralder of democracy" followed the requirements of the "international community" and after 74 years the name of Yugoslavia disappeared off the political map. The strategic goal of its replacement with a series of weak and divided protectorates had finally been achieved.
Sometimes, though, even the best executed plans go awry. Despite the western eulogies, Djindjic will be mourned by few in Serbia. For the great majority of Serbs, he will be remembered as a quisling who enriched himself by selling his country to those who had waged war against it so mercilessly only a few years earlier. Djindjic's much lauded reforms have led to soaring utility prices, unemployment has risen sharply to over 30%, real wages have fallen by up to 20% and over two-thirds of Serbs now live below the poverty line.
It is still unclear who fired the shots that killed Zoran Djindjic. The likelihood is that it was an underworld operation, his links to organised crime finally catching up with him. But, harsh though it sounds, there are many in Serbia who would willingly have pulled the trigger. On a recent visit to Belgrade, I was struck not only by the level of economic hardship, but by the hatred almost everyone I met felt towards their prime minister, whose poll ratings had fallen below 10%.
The lesson from Serbia for today's serial regime changers is a simple one. You can try to subjugate a people by sanctions, subversion and bombs. You can, if you wish, overthrow governments you dislike and seek to impose your will by installing a Hamid Karzai, General Tommy Franks or a Zoran Djindjic to act as imperial consul. But do not imagine that you can then force a humiliated people to pay homage to them.
7 Neil Clark is writing a book about the recent history of Yugoslavia