bosnia report
New Series No:32-34 December - July 2003
Serbia after Djindjic
by International Crisis Group

Today’s Serbia and Montenegro continues to represent a major locus of regional instability.

Belgrade’s behaviour and official statements have been fanning regional tension with both Bosnia and Kosovo. It continues actively to oppose international community goals in both places, thereby prolonging the need for an international administrative and peacekeeping presence. Until Belgrade changes these policies, it cannot be viewed as either a reliable partner or a guarantor of regional stability, and the international community will need to maintain a heavy presence in the region.

One key reason why Belgrade continues to disrupt efforts at regional stability is that few Serbs believe that their country’s borders are final, and most are dissatisfied with the status quo. This relates not only to the unresolved questions of union with Montenegro and the final status of Kosovo, but also to the all-too-frequently-mentioned possibility of partitioning and annexing portions of Bosnia-Herzegovina - anathema to the international community, but taken very seriously by even the more enlightened of Belgrade politicians. Until such time as Serbia resolves its border questions, its neighbours will continue to be nervous and regional instability will remain elusive.

Kosovo: de facto partition

Belgrade has consistently worked against the efforts of UNMIK and the international community in Kosovo to establish the authority of the institutions created under UN Security Council Resolution 1244 throughout the province, and to integrate Serbs into the Kosovo government structures. International budgetary support to Serbia has permitted the Serbian and Yugoslav governments to free up as much as $75 million annually to carry out a partition of Kosovo. There can also be no question that the informal Milošević-era parallel financial structures that supported the para-state contributed significant funds to the efforts of Belgrade’s security forces in the region. The attempt to create an ethnic Serb mini-entity appears finally to be close to fruition. Đinđić started 2003 with an aggressive agenda that could have proved disruptive to the plodding, unimaginative policies that have typified the international community’s Balkan diplomacy. He sent up a series of trial balloons, the most notable of which was a proposal to begin dialogue immediately over the future status of Kosovo. This caught EU, UN, US and Kosovo Albanians completely off guard. He was the first Serbian leader to state openly that ‘independence [for Kosovo] will no longer be a taboo subject’.1 Overt moves from Belgrade on Kosovo’s final status most probably died with Đinđić. Serbia will, however, continue to look to a de jure partition as a medium-term goal.2

Already Belgrade has established complete parallel structures in the North, ranging from telecommunications to the judiciary to the education system and security services. The recent formation of a Union of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo has institutionalized Serb efforts towards partition. At a 25 February 2003 meeting, the Assembly of Union of Serbian Municipalities voted unanimously to support Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosovo.3 In the event of a formal partition, the already existing parallel structures would simply emerge in their true form; essentially this is what happened to the Republika Srpska in Bosnia under the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995.

Similarly, Serbia already maintains a discreet but pervasive security presence within the north of the province, as well as within some of the Serb enclaves. Some of these forces - both KOS and BIA - have been in place since KFOR arrived in July 1999. They may number over 1,000 men throughout the province.4 The strategy is to obtain permission for the return of Serb security forces, thereby legalizing the presence of those forces still in place, while simultaneously reinforcing them. At its 23 January 2003 presidency meeting, DOS called for the return of MUP and VJ forces to Kosovo in keeping with the provisions of UNSCR 1244. 5 Đinđić repeated this on several occasions and went so far as to write to President Putin of Russia, President Bush of the US, and Prime Minister Blair of the UK with his proposal.6 His successor, Živković, may be less activist but is unlikely to have a different agenda.

The Đinđić initiatives caused consternation among Kosovo’s Albanians, who are deeply divided on every conceivable political issue except one: all want independence within Kosovo’s existing borders. While impatient for status negotiations, they want the international community - preferably the United States - to negotiate on their behalf for this independence. They fear - perhaps correctly - that the Serbs are better organized and more experienced at negotiating. While there have been reports of private meetings between Serbian and Albanian officials at the highest levels,7 the Albanians had little incentive to respond to Đinđić’s initiative and negotiate directly. UNMIK remains in control of the province, and although it has begun to transfer power to the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government, SRSG Michael Steiner announced in February that there would be no final status discussions in 2003.8 Given that there is no pressure on them to negotiate a status agreement directly with Serbia, their insecurity and suspicion of the Serbs, and that partition is a highly undesirable outcome for Albanians, it is most unlikely that any Albanian politician could sign a partition deal.

At least partly in response, Steiner invited Đinđić to participate in three-way talks with UNMIK and the Kosovo government, not to discuss final status but to resolve a number of technical issues - such as licence plates - that the Serbs have obstructed for three years. Đinđić’s death certainly puts any talks on hold for the near future. Yet, if dialogue should occur and resolve some technical issues, it may become a foundation for further confidence-building measures that could lead to the final status process. Any high-level dialogue between official Belgrade and Prishtina should be welcomed, particularly given the lack of such dialogue over the previous three years. Patience with the status quo is wearing thin on all sides, and unless the international community takes the lead, this situation could threaten the delicate peace within Kosovo and the wider region. The UNMIK-moderated discussions should provide a forum for initial official contacts and confidence building measures that could be used to pave the way towards a discussion of final status.

Bosnia-Herzegovina: the uncut umbilical cord

Both Koštunica and Đinđić had recently questioned Bosnia-Herzegovina’s boundaries. Koštunica, addressing an election rally in Mali Zvornik on the Serbian side of the Drina river across from the Bosnian city of Zvornik on 7 September 2002, stated that Republika Srpska was ‘a part of the family that is dear to us, near, temporarily split off, but always in our heart’.9 In January 2003 Đinđić - himself born in Bosnia - linked Kosovo’s final status to a reopening of the Dayton Peace Accords, in which ‘borders in the region would have to be completely redefined’.10 As recently as late February, Đinđić once again linked the Republika Srpska to Kosovo, even though the two situations are in no way alike.11 The sentiments expressed by Koštunica and Đinđić are shared by most Serb politicians and the vast majority of the electorate. Of particular concern for the international community is the attempt to link the partition of Kosovo - now favoured by Belgrade - to a similar partition of Bosnia, where the legal and security situations are as different as are prospects for the future and the circumstances that brought about the ethnic divide.

The issue of partition and territorial compensation aside, Belgrade's continuing influence in Republika Srpska is unhelpful to Bosnia's economic reintegration and political maturation. During a recent television interview, Serbia's Finance Minister, Božidar Đelić, endorsed RS reservations over the international community's plans to introduce Value Added Tax (VAT) on the Bosnian state level and to unify the entities' customs services. This seemed to indicate that Belgrade prefers to keep Bosnia's economic space both disunited and, in effect, a playground for criminality.12

Belgrade influences events in Bosnia most in relations with the RS security forces. Although it appears to have cut off its formal ties with the RS Army (VRS), a series of informal arrangements seem still to be in place between various elements of the former DB militarized formations and VJ counterintelligence (KOS) on the one hand, and the VRS and Bosnian Serb intelligence services on the other. Many Bosnian Serb paramilitary formations were formed and controlled by the DB: some were mobilized for action in Kosovo in 1999. The VRS was almost wholly subservient to the VJ. These strong wartime ties have prevented Bosnia from developing a common Defence Ministry or equivalent structure, which is a precondition for that country’s entry into NATO.s Partnership for Peace.

Serbia and Republika Srpska still maintain a united air defence network, consisting of radar and anti-aircraft missile and artillery units, under the command and control of Belgrade.13 This network prevents the establishment of an integrated Bosnian military command under civilian control and is a clear violation of Annex 1 of the Dayton Accords, which forbids non-SFOR foreign military on Bosnian soil.

Of equal international concern is the role Republika Srpska plays in maintaining illegal financial flows for Serbian security services, political parties, and alternative centres of power. Contrary to common wisdom, Belgrade has not been financing Republika Srpska for several years. Rather, RS has been financing Belgrade. Following the Dayton Peace Accords, Milošević used RS as a neighbour with a friendly political environment to circumvent sanctions. The RS did so by facilitating money laundering and cash flows to finance Milošević’s parallel security structures, many of which were based on large-scale tax and customs-evasion schemes involving tobacco, weapons and petroleum.

These have also included suspicious middle-man schemes, the most notorious of which - the recent Elektroprivreda scandal - cost the RS budget over $90 million annually.14 The revenues from these illegal activities have been largely controlled by the remnants of the Milošević-era DB and KOS parallel structures, and some seem to have funded the bodyguards and other support structures that keep Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić out of The Hague's court.

The March 2003 SFOR raids on the offices of several RS officials and businessmen, as well as the subsequent shutdown of their businesses and bank accounts, were designed to restrict this flow. Of particular concern is the fact that the Milošević-era ‘businessmen’ affiliated with Serbian State Security appear to control much of Republika Srpska’s revenue flows through the Ministry of Finance, and have excessive influence over the office of the Premier. Another company that allegedly provides cover for money laundering and weapons shipments is the Zepter Group, owned by Milan Janković (a.k.a. Filip Zepter).15 Milan Janković was a close personal friend of Zoran Đinđić and the pair spent time together on holidays. The Belgrade media has reported that Janković is directly financing the Serbian government’s lobbying effort in the United States.16

The arrest of Radovan Karadžić as a requirement of justice should be an imperative anyway if the region is to deal with the past. But it is also a vital requirement if the region is to have a future. Karadžić, and those who protect him, continue to believe that after a few more years the international community will simply give up and go away, allowing the nationalist forces to reassert their control over the levers of economic and political power throughout the region. They must not be proved right.

Renascent conservative nationalism - Church and state

Serbian society today can be characterized as deeply conservative. As seen in a recent Helsinki Committee report on nationalism, only now are social and cultural tendencies that were suppressed under communism and Milošević emerging fully. The most noticeable is the strengthening of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the rise of clero-nationalism. The Church seems to be increasingly and openly tied to ultra-conservative and nationalist groups, particularly those with ideologies emanating from the period of Serbia’s Second World War fascist government.17

Milošević used the Church for his own purposes but never really permitted it to become a serious political rival. Since DOS removed him from power, the Serbian Orthodox Church has strengthened its position in society significantly. It was able to do this in large part because of the power struggle between Koštunica and Đinđić. Because Đinđić’s nationalist credentials were weaker than Koštunica’s, he typically took the lead in promoting the role of the Church. As a result religious education has now been introduced in Serbia’s schools, the state has donated large sums of money to the Church to help it finish the Cathedral of St. Sava in Belgrade and approximately 1 million to the Sopočani Monastery.18 Đinđić never seemed to miss a photo opportunity with the Patriarch. The ability to play the two rivals off against each other gave the Church a greater degree of freedom and legitimacy than it had previously enjoyed.

The Church is a highly conservative national body that identifies with what might otherwise be considered political and diplomatic questions, i.e., state borders, the type of state Serbia should be, relations between the state and its citizens and the treatment of national minorities. Its attitudes are often anti-Western, isolationist and defensive. During the wars for the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, it took positions that could only be categorized as extremist, and that in some cases stirred up nationalist frenzy, while turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing, or in some cases justifying it; the Church has never distanced itself from, let alone apologized for, its statements during the wars.19 Even today, priests are often associated with hate-speech attacking other nationalities, and the Church categorizes most other Christian religions as sects, including mainstream Protestant denominations.20 Much of its current thinking derives from the writings of two right-wing anti-Semitic clerics active during the Second World War: Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović, who received a civil decoration from Adolf Hitler,21 and Archimandrite Justin Popović, who taught anti-European attitudes in a manner reminiscent of Russia’s Slavophile movement.22 One of the most conservative and isolationist in the Orthodox world, it has refused to recognize the existence of an independent Orthodox organization in Montenegro, and eagerly accepted the high-level defection from the Macedonian Orthodox Church of the Bishop of Veles in mid-2002.

The Church, together with the VJ’s counter-intelligence service KOS, has been closely linked to the anti-Semitic ultra-right wing nationalist youth group Obraz.23 The Obraz philosophy is based on the writings of the Serbian World War Two Fascist politician Dimitrije Ljotić, who corresponded with Adolf Hitler, as well as both the aforementioned Velimirović and Popović. Obraz has prided itself on breaking up a gay rights parade in Belgrade on 30 June 2001,24 as well as covering the centre of Belgrade with posters of Hague indictee Radovan Karadžić that read ‘every Serb is Radovan’. It may have been associated with the Christmas Eve incident in front of the Patriarchy, as well as a recent attack on a dark-skinned Canadian woman in the centre of Belgrade. The group seems to find backing not only from the Church and the VJ, but also from the Dean of the Belgrade University Philosophy Faculty.25

The activities and influence of the Church and organizations such as Obraz and ‘Blood and Honour’ should be viewed as a reflection of deeper trends within Serbian society that will certainly drive future election campaigns and politics. On the evening television news, one sees exactly how far the government goes to marginalize Serbia’s minority populations. The Muslim-majority city of Novi Pazar, the largest urban centre in the Sandžak region with a population of over 100,000, is absent from the national map during the weather report. Rather, the map and announcers refer to ‘Ras’, a Serbian mediaeval settlement that once existed in the vicinity of Novi Pazar. Other broadcasts refer to the monasteries of Đurđevi Stupovi and Sopočani, both in the Novi Pazar municipality, as ‘Đurđevi Stupovi near Ras’ and ‘Sopočani near Kraljevo’. No mention is made of the Muslim majority city that has become a thriving manufacturing and trade centre.26

The two failed presidential elections of 2002 confirmed the Serb tendency towards conservative national politics. In the first round first poll (29 September) fully 72 per cent of the vote went to candidates who could be considered conservative nationalists. These included the perennial favourite of Serbia’s hard-core nationalists, Vojislav Šešelj, who garnered 22 per cent against the moderate, pro-European Labus’s 27.7 per cent. Other conservative nationalist vote-getters included Koštunica (31.2 per cent), and such minor nationalist figures as Vuk Drašković and Borislav Pelević.27 In the second round on 13 October Koštunica defeated Labus, 67 per cent to 30 per cent. In the second presidential election on 8 December, the voters had little real choice on the political spectrum: all three candidates had a conservative nationalist orientation, and two (Šešelj and Pelević) were associated with paramilitary units that committed war crimes and have since been associated with organized crime activities. The result of this election, in which Šešelj received 36.3 per cent and Koštunica 57.5 per cent, showed that conservative nationalism is not simply a product of the Milošević era, but rather an integral part of Serbia’s political scene.

Of course, the low turnout indicates that these sentiments are not shared by all Serbs, but the message to Serbian politicians is clear: no matter how much reform-oriented policies may please the West, at the end of the day it is Serbs who vote in Serbia’s elections. Any politician who wishes to win an election will have to play to popular sentiments. The rump DOS coalition includes a number of parties with strong conservative nationalist credential, such as the DHSS and NS, to name two of the most visible. Đinđić - lacking Koštunica.s strong nationalist credentials - shied away from attempting to re-educate public opinion about the events of the previous thirteen (or 50) years. He attempted instead to manipulate conservative national icons to increase his popularity. Given the current political instability, it is unlikely that any politician will attempt to undertake radical moves that could cost him the national vote or coalition partners. Even if this happens, it is questionable whether the Serbian public is ready or desirous of coming to grips with its past. Any real hope for a civic option to gain power will depend in large part on how well currently marginalized parties such as G17+, SDP and GSS perform in the next parliamentary elections. In the meantime, the city of Čačak has renamed a school after Bishop Velimirović.28


The Đinđić assassination underlines how little progress Serbia has made in dismantling the Milošević-era structures of power and breaking with the past. It also underlines the dangers faced by reformers who attempt to dismantle the hidden structures of power. Serbia’s polity and society are still firmly in the heavy hand of their recent past. DOS’s failure to try and break this grip through re-education reflects not only the politicians’ lack of desire to deal with painful issues, but also the fact that many believe the nationalist myths. They are also aware that they run great risks, and not only at the ballot box, by challenging the patriotic-nationalist mindset and the criminal organizations that support it.

Strong nationalist interests hamper Serbia’s progress towards European integration. These nationalist forces will continue to hold the country back until their political clout is greatly weakened. The Serbian government will risk displeasure from powerful interest groups and individuals when and if it attempts to bring the armed forces (both army and MUP) under civilian parliamentary control. As seen, efforts to dismantle the organized crime networks inherited from the Milošević era, including through cooperation with The Hague, could prove destabilizing, forcing domestic politicians to walk a very fine line.

The Đinđić assassination provides Serbia’s politicians with a real chance to clear away once and for all the Milošević-era criminal and war criminal structures, and to begin to acquaint the population with the numerous crimes committed in its name during the 1990s. If the government and police succeed in eliminating at least part of the hidden structures of power, it will set the stage for Serbia to make significant progress towards European integration. Should they fail, the country risks becoming the next Belarus.



1. ‘Kosovo: Serben setzten auf Druck aus Brüssel’, Der Spiegel, 1/2003, 79.

2. ‘Kosovo se može podeliti slično Federaciji BiH’, Radio B92, 21 September 2002.

3. ‘Usvojena deklaracija o suverenitetu Srbije na Kosovu’, Radio B92, 25 February 2003.

4. ICG interview with a Serbian source.

5. ‘Predsedništvo DOS-a o Kosovu i fenolu’, 24 January 2003.

6. ‘Đinđić pisao Bušu, Bleru i Putinu’, Radio B92, 4 February 2003.

7 ICG interview with a Serbian government official.

8. Michael Steiner, Address to the United Nations Security Council, 6 February 2003.

9. ‘Sarajevo traži zvaničnu potvrdu Koštunicinog kabineta’, Radio B92, 11 September 2002.

10 ‘Kosovo: Serben setzten auf Druck aus Brüssel’, Der Spiegel, 1/2003, 79.

11 ‘Đinđić: Federalizovati Kosovo’, Radio B92, 27 February 2003.

12 ‘Srbija s Srpskom’, Glas Srpski, 9 February 2003.

13 ICG interviews with Western intelligence and diplomatic sources

14 See OHR Press Release of 25 February 2003, ‘High Representative Removes Senior Managers from Elektroprivreda RS, Enacts Law on Ministerial and Government Appointments’.

15 OHR report in ICG possession about Zepter.

16 ‘Đinđićevu promociju u SAD finansira Cepter’, Blic News, 23 June 2002.

17 ‘Karakter novog srpskog nacionalizma’, Helsinski odbor za ljudska prava u Srbiji, January 2003.

18 ICG interview with diplomatic source in Belgrade.

19 ‘Srpska pravoslavna crkva, patrijarha i rat’, in Žene za mir, Belgrade 2002, p. 199.

20 ICG interviews with civil rights activists. See also ‘Fašizam i neofašizam danas’, in Žene za mir, Belgrade 2002, p. 144.

21 See Ljubica Stefan’s Fairy Tale to Holocaust, Zagreb1993.

22 ‘Dva lica Srbije: Cena otetih godina’, Vreme, 13 December 2001. See also ‘Srpska pravoslavna crkva, patrijarha i rat’, in Žene za mir, Belgrade 2002, p. 199.

23 ICG interviews with leading human rights and military experts. See also ‘SPC iza Obraza i Krvi i časti’, Danas, 20 September 2002. The full name of Obraz is ‘Otačastveni pokret Obraz’.

24 See the Obraz account at its web site:

25 ‘Novi govor mržnje’, Helsinska povelja, January 2002, Nr. 48.

26 ICG interviews with civil rights activists. See also ‘Kad ponos zamene stid i nemoć’, in Žene za mir, Belgrade 2002, p. 171.

27 All figures are taken from the CeSID web site,

28 ‘Fašizam i neofašizam danas’, in Žene za mir, Belgrade 2002, p. 144.

These extracts are taken from ‘Serbia after Djindjic’, ICG Balkans Report No.141, 18 March 2003. The full report can be found on the ICG website at


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