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Serbia Cracks Down on Criminal Gangs - 2003-04-01

In the three weeks since Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated, the government has mounted a huge crackdown against the organized crime gangs believed to be linked to the murder. Mr. Djindjic's allies in the government have surprised observers with their resolve to attack corruption and push forward their slain leader's reform agenda.

Perhaps the boldest action taken by new Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic was last week's disbanding of the special operations police unit, known as the Red Berets, which was seen as having close ties with organized crime.

The move is seen as an important step in fighting organized crime, according to Slobodan Homen, a leader of the Otpor student group that was prominent in the October 2000 uprising that brought down former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Mr. Homen called the disbanding of the unit "probably the crucial step in this fight against organized crime. Because in the past 10 years, Milosevic allowed criminal gangs to have IDs from the secret service. So, at the same time, they were criminals and the state," he asserted.

Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the VIP Daily News Report in Belgrade, agrees that the disbanding of the Red Berets was an important step. He also applauds the sacking of Milosevic era judges and prosecutors and the rounding up of nearly 2,000 alleged organized crime members in the hunt for Mr. Djindjic's killers.

Mr. Grubacic said democracy in Serbia is fragile, and that still more reforms are needed. "The question is how long this state of emergency will hold," said Mr. Grubacic. "On the other hand, the government has to solve the constitutional issue, so that Serbia can get a new constitution, after forming this new state of Serbia and Montenegro. And then they have to reform the army, which was also part of the problem."

A new constitution is expected to be ready by September. Parliamentary elections could come soon thereafter.

The reformist government faces significant political and economic challenges. Washington has made aid conditional on Serbia meeting a U.S.-mandated deadline of June 15 to demonstrate tangible cooperation with the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Economic growth is slower than projected, making it harder for the government to deliver on its promise to boost living standards.

Slobodan Homen, the Otpor leader who is also a lawyer, said there is optimism in Belgrade that a society based on the rule of law is at last being created. For example, "Now we have a real police force. Because, in the past, the police were afraid of these paramilitary groups [Red Berets], and they were fully aware of who are the criminals. But they were simply blocked from arresting them. We believe this can be a great beginning," said Mr. Homen.

This week, Otpor and the Serbian Interior Ministry are launching a drive to get citizens to voluntarily turn in the up to 60,000 weapons said to be in the hands of Serbian citizens.