Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro

Ari Fleischer’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Attempting to justify Washington’s plans to invade Iraq without United Nations approval, the White House spokesman held up Serbia as a bright, shining example of successful US-sponsored regime change, arguing that NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign weakened Slobodan Milosevic and hastened his fall from power. “I suppose he might still be there had it not been for NATO and the United States,” Fleischer told reporters in Washington on March 10. “That was regime change in Serbia, wasn’t it?”

Two days later in downtown Belgrade, the old regime bit back. Serbia’s prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, the darling of the West and the man who had engineered Milosevic’s ouster in October 2000, hobbled out of an armored limousine near his government’s headquarters on the afternoon of March 12. On crutches and suffering from a broken tendon from a soccer injury, he was moving slowly. Barely out of his car, he was gunned down by a sniper with a high-powered rifle and died almost instantly.

The slaying, which officials here blamed on shady underworld and paramilitary groups tied to the Milosevic regime, dashed Serbs’ hopes for their fragile and fledgling democracy and sparked fears of renewed chaos in this deeply troubled Balkan nation. And with Serbia languishing under a state of emergency and police hunting down gangsters with nicknames like the Godfather, the Idiot, the Rat and Bugsy, it also provided a cautionary lesson about the limits of regime change as Iraqis toppled statues of Saddam Hussein: Decapitating a brutal dictatorship does not a stable democracy make. At the very least, what is needed, but rarely happens, is a wholesale flushing out of the official and unofficial apparatus that keep dictators in power.

Regimes like Milosevic’s and Hussein’s are propped up not only by official state institutions but also by sprawling and overlapping matrixes of underworld criminal groups, shadowy commercial clans and quasi-legal paramilitary units. International sanctions and embargoes like those imposed on Serbia and Iraq tend to strengthen these elements, which are adept at the smuggling and subterfuge necessary to keep the economy puttering along. When such regimes fall, these hidden pillars of support–flush with cash, resources, muscle and firepower–maintain their power and influence. With civil society decimated and the economy devastated, they are usually the most powerful constituency around.

And this leaves the regime changers with a dilemma and a paradox. Directly taking on the hidden power structures runs the risk of renewed bloodshed and chaos. But cutting deals and co-opting these forces, as Washington did in Afghanistan and has suggested it will try to do in Iraq, allows hidden elements of the old regime to keep their power and pursue their own agendas. “The lesson of the last three years is that if a dictator disappears it is not the end of the job,” Maurizio Massari, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s ambassador to Serbia-Montenegro, told me shortly after the assassination. “Regime change should not be confused with dictator change,” Massari added. “Removing a dictator is a necessary but not sufficient condition for changing a regime.”

Serbia’s real revolution was not televised. As scenes of the massive street protests that brought down Milosevic were beamed around a captivated world in October 2000, the decisive blow to his regime actually took place away from the television cameras, in a Mercedes SUV cruising Belgrade’s back streets on the eve of the largest demonstrations. In the back seat were Djindjic and a man called Milorad Lukovic, who goes by the moniker Legija, or “The Legionnaire,” because he once served in the French Foreign Legion. One of the most feared men in town, Lukovic commanded Milosevic’s Special Operations Unit, known as the Red Berets, a secret paramilitary0 police division that was engaged in some of the bloodiest and most brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

A reputed heroin smuggler, Lukovic also had ties to, and would later lead, an underworld group called the Zemun Clan, named for the Belgrade suburb where it is based. Such criminal and paramilitary groups were part of a larger network of shady underground structures set up by Milosevic to fight his wars. They financed themselves through drug smuggling, prostitution and human trafficking. “This was part of a parallel military structure that Milosevic set up to do his dirty work,” said James Lyon, director of the Belgrade office of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “They weren’t just involved in ethnic cleansing, they were also busy looting, pillaging and running criminal rackets,” Lyon added. “There is a nexus here between organized crime, the police, the secret services and war criminals. Often you find that these are all one and the same.”

Milosevic had ordered Lukovic to have his forces fire on the pro-democracy demonstrators who were swarming Belgrade’s streets and squares. Djindjic persuaded the Red Beret leader not to do so, convincing him that Milosevic was finished and that he could get a better deal under a new government. “The hidden power structures in Serbia understood that they could not go any further with Milosevic, so they gave him up, but they wanted certain payoffs,” said Bratislav Grubacic, a Belgrade-based political analyst.

At first, Djindjic and Serbia’s new leaders accommodated them. Lukovic’s cohorts were integrated into the country’s police and security forces, a wholesale purge of the judiciary, military and law-enforcement bodies was deferred, and the authorities turned a blind eye while organized crime groups like the Zemun Clan continued doing what they do best. But the new government soon realized that Serbia would stay an international pariah, elected officials would not really govern the country and the economy would remain a basket case as long as Lukovic and other underworld leaders kept their influence. So Djindjic and his team decided to declare war, at first covertly but later openly, on organized crime.

Djindjic’s government first tried to play Belgrade’s top two organized crime syndicates, the Zemun and Surcin clans, against each other. The government also began hitting various underworld targets with raids against drug rings and human traffickers, as well as rooting out some remnants of the old regime from law-enforcement bodies. Cooperating with the international criminal tribunal in The Hague reinforced this effort, since many suspected war criminals are also underworld bosses. But it also carried enormous political risks, since many here view the tribunal as anti-Serb.

Under pressure from the United States, Milosevic was arrested in April 2001 and extradited to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes two months later. Assuming he and his men were safe, Lukovic acquiesced in the move. But the tribunal soon turned its attention to Lukovic and other Red Berets. Seeing an opportunity to please Western donors and rid himself of his political rivals, Djindjic made it clear he would cooperate.

In January Lukovic sent an open letter to Serbian newspapers accusing Djindjic of being “dangerously unpatriotic” and warning him that his days were numbered. “You are muddying the true patriots [and] spending the last credits of people’s patience,” the letter read. “Your last days are being counted.” In February, a reputed Zemun Clan gangster named Dejan Milenkovic–alias “Bugsy”–rammed a truck into the prime minister’s car, which was traveling in a government motorcade. A sniper was waiting in a nearby highrise apartment building for Djindjic to get out of his car, but the prime minister’s bodyguards made sure he stayed put. Bugsy was briefly detained after the incident, but, amazingly, was released and has since disappeared.

The first attempt on Djindjic’s life came two days after a failed attempt to arrest Veselin Sljivancanin, indicted by the Hague tribunal for atrocities committed in Croatia, particularly the massacre of civilians at Vukovar, in the early 1990s. “The Djindjic assassination shows how little progress Serbia has made in dismantling the Milosevic-era structures of power and breaking with the past,” said Lyon of the International Crisis Group. “It also shows the dangers faced by reformers who attempt to dismantle these structures.”

On March 12, the day Djindjic was killed, his government was planning to issue arrest warrants for several top underworld figures, including Lukovic. Many here described the assassination as nothing short of an attempted coup by remnants of the old regime, and warn that a similar fate could just as easily await Iraq’s new rulers in due time. “The hidden power structures that will eventually give up Saddam will continue to have money and power, and will later form the opposition to the new regime,” Grubacic said. “It won’t be easy with them.”

Officials have become fond of referring to Djindjic as “Serbia’s John F. Kennedy,” and on the night of his funeral, a Belgrade television station showed Oliver Stone’s controversial film JFK. The message and the symbolism from the film–that the Djindjic assassination was orchestrated by a cabal of crime bosses and state security officials–were lost on nobody.

At first glance, it appears that Djindjic’s allies in the government, sensing that “it is us or them,” seem to have taken the gloves off in pursuit of the prime minister’s killers. More than 7,000 people have been detained, and more than 2,000, including the alleged triggerman, remain in custody. Businesses fronting for the Zemun Clan have been bulldozed, and high-profile Milosevic-era officials have been arrested. Among those detained were two former security aides to Vojislav Kostunica, a former ally of Djindjic’s who replaced Milosevic as Yugoslav president in October 2000 but stepped down this past February, when Yugoslavia was dissolved. (A moderate nationalist, Kostunica was an ally of Djindjic’s in the anti-Milosevic opposition, but the two later fell out over the pace of reform and whether to extradite war-crimes suspects to The Hague. Kostunica twice failed to win election to Serbia’s presidency.) The new prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, has also pledged greater cooperation with the Hague tribunal, including a promise to hunt down the notorious Ratko Mladic, wanted for the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, Lukovic, the assassination plot’s alleged mastermind, remains at large.

Many here argue that the Djindjic assassination could be the catalyst that finally pushes Serbia to face its bloody recent past, purge remnants of the old regime and institute genuine democratic reforms. Perhaps, but huge obstacles remain, and it is unclear whether the government has the stomach to surmount them. The country’s law-enforcement establishment, judiciary and military remain infiltrated with Milosevic holdovers and Lukovic cronies. Nationalism and xenophobia remain prevalent, and many Serbs continue to view the West with suspicion. On the day of Djindjic’s funeral, groups of men on Belgrade’s main pedestrian mall hawked T-shirts with pictures of Mladic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, also indicted for the Srebrenica massacre, reading “Serb Heroes.”

As soldiers in camouflage with AK-47 assault rifles patrol the streets, the yawning gap between the soaring hopes of Serbia’s “October Revolution” and today’s gloomy reality should temper any expectations that democracy will flourish in Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East, after Saddam Hussein is gone. With enough firepower, any disciplined and well-trained army can depose a dictator. But changing a regime is another matter entirely.