A Gangster Dies in Gangland
by Stephen Schwartz
The shooting death Saturday of 47-year-old Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan, in the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental in Belgrade, is an eloquent testimony to the depths into which Serbia has plunged under Arkan's patron, Slobodan Milošević.
Of course, few aside from his wife Svetlana, a pop singer nicknamed Ceca, his acolytes in the terrorist Serbian Volunteer Guard or "Tigers," and other fanatical Serb ultranationalists will mourn him. The baby-faced Arkan was one of the most brutal and despicable of the many adventurers pushed to the center of history's stage by the crisis of former Yugoslavia.
Arkan was reputedly a product of the Titoite secret police, wanted by Interpol for bank robbery and similar forms of basic criminality, in addition to the murders of various Yugoslav dissidents.
But he made himself indispensable to the post-Communist Milosevic regime, first by his killing sprees in the countries neighboring Serbia, and then in Kosovo. In the Serb siege of Vukovar, in Eastern Croatia, Arkan's men served as shock troops for the Yugoslav army forces that laid waste to a once-beautiful city.
His gangs destroyed the lives and property of whole families and villages in their forays into Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Nothing and nobody was spared, from the oldest grandparents to the youngest children, down to livestock, dogs and cats.
During his glory days, the promotion of Arkan's image in official Serbian media served as a reliable yardstick of the degeneration of Belgrade "journalists." Arkan was put forward as a mythical hero, a "restless youth" who had found his calling as a Serb equivalent of Rambo. His marriage to Ceca, the purveyor of sentimental ultranationalist ballads in a folk style, boosted his appeal to the nihilist vagabonds he recruited for mass murder, many of them out of the soccer thug milieu associated with the Belgrade Red Star team. Later he owned another rowdy team, Obilić.
He was "elected" to the Serb parliament for a district in Kosovo in 1992, in a balloting boycotted by Albanians. One of his first speeches after winning the seat featured the claim that more than a million and a half Albanians in Kosovo were immigrants from Albania proper, and therefore "tourists." Clearly, they were marked for expulsion, and until the NATO intervention of 1999 Arkan was a club Milošević held over Kosovo. Rumors of his appearance were enough to inspire real panic among his designated victims. Most recently, he was alleged to have personally telephoned death threats to Bosnian Serb opposition journalist Željko Kopanja, who was almost killed when his car was blown up in Banja Luka.
Details of Arkan's murder remain sketchy, but the prominent place of his death suggests it was intended as a signal. He was probably killed by those among his cohort who have decided they waited long enough to take the limelight, and the profits accruing to his activities, away from him. Belgrade has been plagued by a series of such gangland-style killings, all of which seem, in some measure, to show how the Milošević regime is likely to end.
Many will say that in dying a squalid death in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, Arkan received the fate he deserved. We may regret that he did not live to be tried at The Hague by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. But we must also note, as many ordinary people in former Yugoslavia will have observed, that a court that will not impose capital punishment, like the ICTY, cannot effect real justice against the Arkans of the world.
But the destiny of Arkan is perhaps more important as a symbol of Serbian political life today. Serbia has become a gangster state, reminiscent of nothing so much as a Third World dictatorship of the old style, such as the Haiti of "Papa Doc" Duvalier. While Croatia has just accomplished an admirable democratic handover of power to the former opposition, the shooting of Arkan has shown the manner in which a transition away from Milosevic's rule is increasingly likely to be seen in Serbia.
It seems almost impossible to imagine that Belgrade was once considered the most cosmopolitan and open-minded of the East European communist capitals, a center of modernist art, literary publishing, and philosophical inquiry. It seems even more difficult to imagine that the Serbian nation once believed itself to be the vanguard of modern and progressive ideas in the South Slav region.
Ninety years ago, a Serb journalist, Dušan Popović, responded to his country's atrocities against Albanians in the Balkan Wars of that time by declaring, "We must rescue the image of the Serbian people in the eyes of cultured and democratic Europeans. We must show that there are people in Serbia, many people, who oppose this (policy)." But such phrases also seem to be lost echoes of an incredibly remote era.
In following the siren call of communism-turned-fascism, the Serbian nation, including many prominent intellectuals, seems to have believed it had entered into a new phase of modernity, as it once embraced Romantic nationalism, "humanistic Marxism" and other fads. But history has proved a cruel teacher for the Serbs. They are learning the hard way that civic responsibility, accountable institutions, human rights, and respect for the lives and property of their neighbors are much more than empty phrases.
The death of Arkan must necessarily increase the stress and pressure on other Belgrade personalities, in addition to Slobodan Milošević. Vojislav Šešelj, a figure even more repulsive than Arkan in his crude ultranationalism and terrorist behavior, remains a member of Milošević's government. The possibility cannot be excluded that if the dominoes continue to fall, he will be next. By comparison with death by gunfire in public, a nice, warm cell in The Hague -- Mr. Šešelj has also been indicted -- could conceivably become attractive to him.
Arkan's demise also increases the challenge facing the Serbian opposition, or what passes for one. Vuk Drašković, one of the most prominent critics of Milošević, does not himself have clean hands with regard to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, nor does Zoran Djindjić, who egged on the terrorists in the latter country. Notwithstanding the recent signing of yet another anti-Milošević pact, such men, who often seem to hate Milošević mainly because he failed at his genocidal plans, appear incapable of really uniting to remove him. Nor can most of them inspire confidence in the West as to a new beginning for Serbian democracy.
Serbia has a tradition of rough justice. But the bloodshed at the Hotel Intercontinental in Belgrade conveys a single, stark message: In the absence of a rational transition away from Milošević, Belgrade may become the Medellín of the Balkans, a free-fire zone between deranged gangsters. Indeed, according to reliable Serb opposition media, Arkan himself had links with the Colombian cartels, as improbable as that may seem. But above all, the hour is late for Serbia's rescue, and no foreign power is likely to relieve the Serbian people of the heavy task before them.