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.”