Ten Years After His Assassination, Zoran Djindjic’s Legacy Lives On
WASHINGTON — Ten years ago today, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated by a sniper at the entrance of the cabinet office in Belgrade, marking a tremendous blow to the fledgling process of democratization in Serbia. While the conspirators, including the sniper, were condemned in a court of law and are serving long prison sentences, the identity of those who ordered his killing remains unknown.
The story of Djindjic — a modern, pro-European, democratic leader and statesman — is emblematic of Europe’s post-communist transitions. He became a politician after having pursued a successful academic career as political philosopher. Returning to Serbia from Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he helped found the Democratic Party (DS) and became its leader in 1992. Vehemently opposed to Slobodan Milosevic’s regime during the period of Yugoslavia’s bloody civil war, he eventually won a peaceful election in 2000. He was the chief architect of a victory in which political parties, civil society, a democratic media, and — notably — the student movement Otpor all played key roles. The Western Balkan states — the former Yugoslavia and Albania — were latecomers to the process of EU and NATO enlargement during the 1990s. For two years after taking office in 2001, Djindjic lost no time in launching a massive privatization effort, knowing that Serbia had to leave behind its statist command economy model as quickly as possible in order to attract foreign investment. He also assumed the reins of the political democratization process. Djindjic was keenly aware of the burden of the communist legacy on Western Balkan society.
A collectivist spirit still overrode any sense of individualism. Paternalistic, authoritarian mindsets needed to be overturned. And a democratic political culture had to be progressively instilled through the reform of the state, its security services, and the military. Modernization, he understood, would be a Sisyphean task. Djindjic moved boldly. Arresting Milosevic and sending him to the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was a demonstration of his willingness to confront the most difficult issues head-on. Most importantly, in February 2003, Djindjic decided to tackle the urgent problem of a resolution to the Kosovo issue. He was fully aware that if left unresolved, Kosovo would become a millstone around Serbia’s neck on its path to democracy and European integration. But his efforts were cut short by his tragic death. A decade later, Serbia finds itself exactly where Djindjic wanted it to be at the end of 2003, showing the extent to which his assassination slowed Serbia’s democratic reforms. It was only in 2008, with the election of a Democratic Party government under President Boris Tadic, that Serbia once again began to move forward more forcefully. Under Tadic’s leadership, the last of the 40-odd Serbs indicted by the ICTY — including Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic — were arrested. Just as importantly, talks were launched in 2011 between Belgrade and Pristina to begin resolving the Kosovo issue. Facilitated by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, the talks have brought the two sides to the cusp of a historical compromise, one that would allow both to move forward on the path to EU integration.
Despite its current travails, it appears the EU’s soft power is very much alive and active in the Western Balkans. Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s first democratically elected prime minister, was violently taken away from his family and his country ten years ago. But his vision of a democratic and European Serbia — and of a Balkan region within the EU — lives on. There could be no better testament to his legacy than for the region’s countries to maintain the momentum of integration by continuing to pursue reform policies, and for the EU to continue supporting these efforts.
Ivan Vejvoda is Vice President for Programs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC and a former Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
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