Two-year conspiracy of silence
by Milos Vasic
They say that time heals all wounds, but one cannot say that it erases all memories. The case of Ivan Stambolic is more than a memory to Serbia: it is a warning that villains are still among us. They are protected by a conspiracy of silence and a continuity of political pragmatism that still seems to require criminals. As long as the murderers of Stambolic and Curuvija are walking free, no one in Serbia can be safe.
On 26 August 2002 the Belgrade daily Danas published its ‘missing person’ picture of Ivan Stambolic for the seven hundred and thirty-first – and last – time:
‘Missing in action, believed dead
Stambolic, Ivan - born 5 November 1936, Brezovica (near Ivanjica)
Last seen 25 August 2000, on the recreation ground at Kosutnjak
across from the Golf Club car park, talking to two individuals
one of whom was holding a gun and the other an official ID.’
One month later, and exactly thirteen years after the Eighth Session of the CC of the LC of Serbia [at which Stambolic was ousted by Milosevic], Slobodan Milosevic lost the elections. On 5 October he lost power too. The only consolation for him and his wife Mira was that at least Ivan was not there to rejoice. While the indictments against Milosevic were being read out at The Hague, he quivered and betrayed emotion only once – when the name of Ivan Stambolic was mentioned. The recent encounter between Milosevic and Rade Markovic [former secret police chief] was enlightening too: the judge and his executioner exchanged glances and confirmed their long-standing wolves’ pact. Dead lips cannot speak.
In the meantime, Momir Gavrilovic and Bosko Buha have been killed under just as suspicious circumstances as their numerous predecessors before October 2000. Their deaths should be taken as a serious warning, for the implication is clear: ‘They’ are still around, and can kill whomsoever they choose to – like Slavko Curuvija; ‘disappear’ whomsoever they choose to – like Ivan Stambolic. Or, as one wily old policeman remarks: regimes may come and go, but the Security Service remains. That explains why wrongdoers in Serbia are so arrogant and self-confident.
Signature written in blood
For two whole years now Ivan Stambolic’s friends and the friends of freedom and democracy have left no stone unturned. They have checked out vans, prisons and mental institutions, and suggested many clues to the police. Two years later we are not much wiser than we were back on 25 August 2000, which simply confirms our initial suspicions. It is perfectly clear who disappeared Ivan Stambolic and why, just as it is clear who killed Slavko Curuvija and why. How is it clear?
Merely by a process of elimination. If Anyone Else was responsible, these crimes (and many others) would have been solved long ago. The stories put about by a cabal of old-regime half-wits – sundry Markovic’s, Matic’s, Vucic’s, Bojic’s and tutti quanti – about how, supposedly, mysterious gangs of killers in the hire of foreign powers are stalking the land of Serbia, murdering at will, were obvious, feeble-minded fabrications then, now and for all time. And those wretches are still claiming that ‘Otpor’ killed Bosko Perosevic! Just as ministers in the current government claim that ‘foreign intelligence services’ are intercepting the correspondence of certain Serbian journalists, then passing it to pro-government weeklies and various state bureaus.
Now there are limits to one’s tolerance of such insults to intelligence and common sense. For eleven years now, ever since the murder of Beli Matic, heads have been rolling: in the same way, by the same methods, and with the same signature written in blood. For elevent years the police have been simulating investigations, going through the same ritual motions, knowing all the while that the culprits will never be found. Hence the cynicism of the police top brass: ‘Well, John Kennedy was killed, Olof Palme was killed, it happens…’ Hence Ivan Markovic’s shameless suggestion that Stambolic’s wife should be asked about his whereabouts. Hence Goran Matic’s brazen statement that only public enemies ask who killed Curuvija. These arrogant oafs know their arrogance will cost them nothing. They know very well why Curuvija was murdered, and why Stambolic was abducted. They know who did it, and on whose orders. The regime media did not find it necessary to inform the public of the disappearance of Stambolic until five days afterwards. Ivan Markovic later remarked that it was not ‘important news’. He could have saved his breath, since without him the chief editors knew which way the wind was blowing, and what time of day it was; they knew all about the Nacht und Nebel clause and enemies vanishing into ‘night and fog’. Hear this: Tanjug hasn’t reported it… The couple of them who got it wrong and did publish a report - TV Politika and the Novi Sad daily Dnevnik – had their bottoms duly smacked.
How, with delicate senses and refined instincts, did the editors of the regime media sniff out the fact that they should not publish the news about the ‘disappearance’ of Ivan Stambolic, former president of Serbia? Through the psychological mechanism known as Pavlovian reaction. It was necessary only for the First Lady [Mira Markovic] to say once that ‘the problem in Serbia isn’t the so-called opposition, but the ghosts from the Eighth Session’, and everything was clear even to the most moronic of chief editors. After the (natural) demise of Buca [Dragisa] Pavlovic, there was only one ghost left.
When Ivan Stambolic’s friends and the friends of freedom, democracy and truth asked the police to question the aforementioned editors about whether anybody had perhaps advised them not to publish the news of his ‘disappearance’, Belgrade’s police chief Buca Djuric promised to inquire – but has done nothing. Just as no one questioned Goran Matic about his notorious statement that foreign powers had instructed Otpor to ask who had killed Curuvija. The general attitude of the police was and remains more or less: ‘Why are you getting at us, when you know perfectly well what happened? Leave us alone, for heaven’s sake, things aren’t easy for us…’ They behave as though these murders and disappearances were natural phenomena, like earthquakes or bolts of lightning. Act of God, nothing we can do, death comes to us all…
Branded, condemned, denounced
It was just the same with the one obvious and inescapable clue to Stambolic’s ‘disappearance’, the windowless white van with side doors and double rear tyres. The police claimed not to have found any such vehicle on the register. They didn’t say whether they had checked on that other, special register of vehicles owned by the State Security service, the same register on which was surreptitiously and unofficially listed the truck from the Ibar highway [where an attempt was made to assassinate Vuk Draskovic]. And then Stambolic’s lawyer Nikola Barovic (‘I represent a man who has not yet been declared dead’) by his own methods found two vans answering to the description, though the police could not find them...
Another clue – far more significant, albeit less visible – provides an ominous link between the cases of Stambolic and Curuvija. For both had until the last moment been under close surveillance by the 9th unit of the State Security Service HQ for the city of Belgrade. In both cases, the surveillance was called off immediately prior to the murder (of Curuvija) and the ‘disappearance’ (of Stambolic). This was confirmed on 27 July 2001 by Goran Petrovic, State Security commander at the time, who stated that Stambolic’s home had been under surveillance until 25 August 2000. It is curious that no one ever investigated why this was; or just who had ordered the surveillance to be lifted and withdrawn the agents from the field; or who gave him the order and why. So who is crazy here, and who is mystified? One team checks where the targets are and withdraws when the time comes; then the other team comes along and ‘does the job’. The link between the two teams is provided by the guy holding the microphone in the operational centre at Belgrade’s State Security HQ on 11 April 1999 and on 25 August 2000. Why has nobody interrogated the State Security operative on duty on those dates? The very fact that this question was not posed after 5 October 2000 – or if it was, the answer remains unknown – directs us to a different level: that of politics. There are certain people now in power whom it suits, for some reason or other, that the truth about these two cases should not be known. Perhaps because they owe something to certain other people: favours, money, power, silence?
There is one other thing that Stambolic and Curuvija had in common. Both just before their respective ends were publicly labelled (branded, condemned, denounced) from On High. Mira Markovic denounced Slavko Curuvija in Politika Ekspres and on state television. Mira Markovic denounced Ivan Stambolic as a ‘ghost from the Eighth Session’, and as the main threat to the survival of the Family’s regime, because there was a real danger he might stand for the post of President of FRY. Henry IV had to exert himself more than Mira Markovic and ask openly: ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’ To continue with the Shakespearian theme, Macbeth portrays a weak man and his ambitious wife; bloody hands that cannot be washed clean by pathetic journalistic drivel about ‘evil people’; and at the end the forest turning into a trap…
What has the new government done about these cases (and others like them)? A faction within the State Security Service has reluctantly disgorged a document concerning the surveillance of Curuvija (Operation Curan [turkey-cock]). Dusan Mihajlovic somehow had 660 kilos of heroin burnt, which the State Security had been saving to sell to the poisoners of children on the streets; no one was held responsible, although everybody knows that Jovica Stanisic and Rade Markovic were guilty of possessing large quantities of narcotics with intent to supply. The worthy bosses of our State Security were evidently large-scale criminals and drug dealers. And their bosses - or should we say Boss - were guilty of encouragement, concealment, and criminal negligence in the execution of their duties. This goes for those two ministers who got themselves killed by criminals, as it does for their various subordinates. And that is the end of the matter, all is forgiven, and the damage is limited to the Ibar highway trial, itself reluctant and partial. The State Security Service has managed to sell itself to the new government ‘as seen’. Ten out of eleven departmental heads have been replaced for form’s sake, but basically the Service has emerged triumphant.
Zoran Djindjic has repeatedly expressed horror and sorrow about the destiny of Ivan Stambolic and Slavko Curuvija. Vojislav Kostunica has promised to do everything he can, but ‘within the Constitution’, naturally – though he could not resist adding as if en passant, in a letter to the Committee for the Release of Ivan Stambolic on 8 December 2000, that: ‘Such cases of the disappearance of former important functionaries, who did belong to the communist regime but at a certain moment came into conflict with Slobodan Milosevic, have a negative effect.’
Meanwhile,without a second thought, both Djindjic and Kostunica retained the entire structure of the criminalized State Security Service, including Radomir Markovic and his team, with no questions asked. Kostunica would not give up Rade Markovic, Djindjic would not give up Ulemek, Lukovic, Legia or their henchmen (and he still won’t, despite what everyone knows, including the fact that they are guilty of armed rebellion).
After the murder of General Radovan Stojicic Badza in April 1997, serious police and counter-intelligence experts repeatedly warned that only one outfit in Serbia was capable of such well organised and professionally executed assassination attempts, certainly no foreign agents or domestic criminals. Nothing has changed since then. The cases of Stojcic, Curuvija, Stambolic, Gavrilovic and Buha all have at least one thing in common: they have not been solved, they have not been investigated, they have not been analysed. The police have routinely and reluctantly combed meadows and ‘left no stone unturned’, knowing that they will not find anything since nothing is permitted to be found.
Where does that leave us, two years after someone ‘disappeared’ Ivan Stambolic, and three years after the murder of Slavko Curuvija? It leaves us at the mercy of those same people, who have now found new employers.
This article has been translated from Vreme (Belgrade), 29 August 2002