Several hundred thousand Serbs and dignitaries representing more than 40 countries turned out for the funeral today of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, killed Wednesday by snipers who allegedly belong to a leading mafia clan.
The streets of the Serbian capital were strewn with mourners' flowers as an army gun carriage bearing Djindjic's coffin made its way from the Serbian Orthodox cathedral to a cemetery overlooking the city. Colleagues of the slain leader eulogized him as the John F. Kennedy of the Balkans who had symbolized the hopes of a new generation of Serbs exhausted by decades of war and economic turmoil.
"The mafia killed the greatest reformer we have," said Deputy Prime Minister Zivan Zivkovic, widely seen as Djindjic's most likely successor, in a funeral oration. In a reference to the mafia nicknames of Djindjic's alleged assassins, Zoran said Serbia was too small a place to share with people known to their friends as "Fool," "Cheat" and "Rat."
"I promise you, Zoran, we will fulfill your dream," he told the crowd, shortly before Djindjic's body was laid to rest. "We will make Serbia a democratic, efficient and rich country that is part of Europe without cheats, rats and fools."
During his two-year tenure as prime minister of Serbia, Djindjic sought to integrate the country into Europe and raise desperately low living standards. Many Serbs say life has improved since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was toppled in a revolution in 2000 led by Djindjic. But huge problems remain, including endemic corruption and organized crime.
A pragmatic politician adept at cutting deals while steering the country toward reform, Djindjic managed to hold together a shaky 17-party coalition government, with a slim majority in parliament. Western leaders respected him for introducing free-market reforms and handing over Milosevic and other war crimes suspects to a U.N. tribunal investigating atrocities committed during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.
The scenes today in central Belgrade reminded many Serbs of the 1980 funeral of Josip Broz, the Communist strongman known as Tito who ruled the multi-ethnic Yugoslav federation with an iron fist for more than three decades. After Tito died, politicians representing Serbia and the other Yugoslav republics began to squabble bitterly over power and economic resources.
"I have only cried for politicians twice in my life," said Jasna Petrovic, 32, a housewife, as she watched the funeral procession go by. "The first time it was for Tito, the second time for Djindjic. Djindjic may not have been the best, or most honest, of politicians -- but he was certainly the best one we had."
Djindjic's assassination was "a wake-up call, although it may have come too late," said Zivorad Milivojevic, a 55-year-old electrician. "Unless all the politicians get together now and help the government push ahead with reforms, we are going to have a terrible situation here."
Speaking on behalf of the European Union at the ceremony today, the Greek foreign minister, George Papandreou, promised to pursue Djindjic's goal of making Serbia "a part of Europe." With its Communist-era legacy of mafia-style groups controlling much of the economy, the country of Serbia and Montenegro is unlikely to join the EU until 2010 at the earliest, European officials said.
Notably absent from the funeral was the chief prosecutor for the war crimes tribunal, Carla Del Ponte, who had repeatedly pushed Djindjic to transfer indicted suspects to The Hague. Serbian officials made clear that she was unwelcome, saying that pressure from the tribunal had complicated their efforts to reform the political system without provoking a rebellion.
Several of the alleged gang members accused by Serbian authorities of complicity in Djindjic's assassination are also being investigated by the war crimes tribunal. They include Milorad Lukovic, a former commander of an elite paramilitary group known as the Red Berets. Lukovic is widely suspected of involvement in atrocities in Bosnia and the Serbian province of Kosovo.
Serbian authorities have arrested more than 60 alleged gang members and former security officials in raids over the last three days under state of emergency rules that allow suspects to be held for up to 30 days. The detainees include Milosevic's former security chief, Jovica Stanisic, once one of the most powerful men in Serbia.