The murder in Belgrade of the Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic has deprived Serbia of its most capable and daring politician. His tireless organisational skills proved absolutely critical at the high point of his career, when the Democratic Opposition of Serbia reform alliance mobilised millions of people to topple the former dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, in October 2000.But despite his success and his dashing good looks, Djindjic, who was 50, was a deeply controversial figure in his own country. His critics accused him of maintaining close links to organised crime syndicates, and while his brisk self-confidence, undoubted arrogance and stubbornness may have been perceived as strengths elsewhere, in Serbia these attributes often counted against him. He had survived a suspected assassination attempt only last month, when a truck swerved in front of the convoy of cars in which he was travelling.Born in the northern Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac, the son of a Yugoslav People’s Army officer, Djindjic was a bright student who became influenced by western Marxism and the Praxis group, the dissident circle of philosophers in Tito’s Yugoslavia. He soon advanced to full-blooded political activism and was jailed in the 1970s for trying to establish a student opposition movement with colleagues from Croatia and Slovenia. In the late 1970s, he travelled to Germany to write his doctorate under the guidance of the leading Marxist philosopher, Jürgen Habermas. In order to finance his studies, Djindjic also started selling clothes, and his managerial skills developed rapidly.
From this point on, Djindjic led two lives – one as a committed revolutionary, the other as a successful businessman. “Djindjic understood at a very early age that revolution and money-making were not mutually exclusive activities,” as the Greek diplomat Alexander Rondos noted in October 2000. In the 1980s, Djindjic spent most of his time in Germany, contributing to political debates on Yugoslavia and the European left. But he also developed another commercial sideline in this period, importing machine tools from communist East Germany into the former Yugoslavia. He did not return full-time to Yugoslavia until 1989, when he took up a post teaching philosophy in Novi Sad, the capital of the northern province of Yugoslavia. Here he witnessed Milosevic’s thugs storming the Vojvodina assembly and seizing control of the region in what was called “the anti-bureaucratic revolution.”That year, he joined a broad spectrum of other dissidents, including a large number of writers and intellectuals, in founding the Democratic party. The competing egos soon ensured that this large opposition movement to Milosevic splintered and collapsed. But Djindjic kept the name and, with a group of core younger activists, he established Serbia’s first mass modern pro-European party.In 1996 and 1997, Djindjic and the Democratic party persuaded tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of Serbs to march through Belgrade for 88 consecutive days. They were protesting against Milosevic’s attempt to deprive them of victory in local elections that saw almost all of Serbia’s major cities fall into opposition hands. Eventually, Milosevic backed down and Djindjic became Belgrade’s first non-communist mayor since the second world war. His tenure as mayor was not an overwhelming success, although he faced immense difficulties as the Serbian capital’s infrastructure had suffered years of neglect under Milosevic’s rule. He told me at the time that he was much less comfortable trying to administer an unwieldy bureaucracy than he was encouraging people to take to the streets to defend their rights.
So outspoken was Djindjic that he felt compelled to flee Serbia for the neighbouring republic of Montenegro during the allied bombing campaign of Yugoslavia when the Kosovo conflict exploded in 1999. He was given information that Milosevic intended making a scapegoat of him and that his life was in danger. He returned with a vengeance and the following year was chiefly responsible for drawing together Serbia’s fractious opposition. They were finally able to put up a candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, who was capable of defeating Milosevic in Yugoslavia’s presidential election.
Djindjic himself became Serbian prime minister and in a short space of time pushed through a number of painful economic and political reforms which were bitterly opposed by Kostunica. The relationship between the two men (which sometimes came close to armed conflict) seriously hampered Serbia’s attempt to introduce key reforms necessary to accelerate the country’s integration into Europe. His opponents accused him of kowtowing to the west, notably when he forced the delivery of Milosevic to the Hague. But in his short time as prime minister, Djindjic did more to assist Serbia in overcoming the disaster of the Milosevic years than any other politician. He was a remarkably gifted and entertaining man, who spoke impeccable German and taught himself English in two years while trying to bring down Milosevic.
Djindjic’s death comes at an exceptionally difficult time for Serbia and the Balkans. The region was slowly beginning to shed its reputation for political violence and instability.
He is survived by his wife Ruzica, who is a lawyer, and their two children, Jovana and Luka.
· Zoran Djindjic, politician, born August 1 1952; died March 12 2003