Anarchy, assassinations, gangland rule - another day in Belgrade

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The Independent Online

The murder last week of Zika Petrovic, head of the Yugoslav airline JAT, has set the rumour mill working in Belgrade. But rumours and conspiracy theories are so thick on the ground that it seems unlikely that anybody will ever know for certain who was responsible for his death.

Belgrade is one of the most violent cities in Europe, where assassinations have become almost par for the course. Most of the republics and provinces in former Yugoslavia have been directly exposed to the violence of war in the past decade of Slobodan Milosevic's rule. On the territory of Serbia, excluding Kosovo, there has been no war. There is, however, an increasing sense of anarchy.

This year alone, those who have died have included several of the most important figures in Belgrade. The paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, was killed in January. The Yugoslavian defence minister, Pavle Bulatovic, was shot dead in a restaurant the following month. Sometimes, the deaths cluster together, like in a real-life version of The Godfather. Branislav Lainovic, a paramilitary leader, was gunned down on 20 March; two other members of the underworld were killed three days later, while returning from his funeral. Last year, those who died included a Belgrade police chief and a newspaper editor. The death of Petrovic - shot dead while walking his dog - is merely the latest in a long line.

Last year's assassination of newspaper editor Slavko Curuvija is widely assumed to have been a political revenge killing on behalf of Milosevic, who had many reasons to be offended by what Curuvija, a former friend of the Milosevic family, had published in his increasingly outspoken paper, the Dnevni Telegraf. The other deaths, however are much murkier to explain. Politics, the black market and the violent underworld overlap so much in Serbia that it is hard to disentangle all the strands.

Milosevic's son, Marko, has profited enormously from a string of smuggling operations, especially with petrol and cigarettes. The sanctions against Yugoslavia that were imposed during the Bosnian war made life much more difficult for ordinary Yugoslavs - but also provided rich pickings for those who were involved in the import of forbidden products, and could sell them on at a huge profit. Nobody can be in any doubt that to cross Marko's path is dangerous. But many in the Belgrade establishment are almost equally keen to make money for themselves.

Petrovic was a close associate of Milosevic, and was born in the president's home town of Zarevac. The Serbian media promptly described his death as a "terrorist" killing, when he was murdered just a few hundred yards from the police headquarters in Belgrade. Certainly, there can be no question that this was the work of professional hitmen: the gunmen used silencers, and no one was aware of the city-centre killing until passers-by found the body.

Petrovic - who was a member of the JUL party which is controlled by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic - may have been killed because he got his hands too dirty, or because he refused to get his hands dirty, or because he got his hands dirty without sharing the spoils. In modern Serbia, any of those can be a lethal crime. Last month, he announced the privatisation of JAT, which has just received permission to fly to European destinations once more.

It is universally assumed in the Balkans that the huge profits for individuals involved in such privatisations are much greater than the benefit to the economy.

Outside bogeymen are sometimes blamed for the deaths. But Belgrade has plenty of home-grown killers. Few Serbs believe a convincing suspect will ever be tried for killing Petrovic. Nor do they believe he will be the last prominent member of the establishment to die a violent death.