The assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic on Wednesday was a stark reminder that despite democratizing reforms, Serbia's violent past overshadows its present.
Djindjic's killing by snipers shook not just the country but leaders around the world who viewed him as a crucial transition figure who looked westward in his policies -- even though, less attractively, he used some of the same strong-arm techniques as former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to control a turbulent political scene.
"Djindjic used to always say, 'I have friends in heaven and in hell,' " said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst in Belgrade, the Serbian and the country's capital. "He was helped very much by some shady people ... to come to power, but when he decided to break away from them, he couldn't manage."
The assassination, believed to be the work of former paramilitary units that fought in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, lays bare the tangled relationship between some of the most violent elements of the special forces, organized crime and the Serbian political system.
During the former Yugoslav federation's period of combat, paramilitary figures close to Milosevic were rewarded with a share of organized criminal activity. Vojislav Kostunica, the first president of Yugoslavia after Milosevic's fall and a rival of Djindjic, condemned the killing and said it showed the country's failure to root out the criminalization that took place during the Milosevic era.
"This is unfortunately another cruel warning that we must face up to the truth and see to what extent crime has infiltrated all aspects of our society," he said. "The fact that political violence is happening not for the first time is a terrible warning about how little headway we have made on the path of real democratization of our society."
Regional leaders as well as many analysts now fear that Serbia's apparent instability will ripple through the former Yugoslav federation, potentially making even more combustible the ethnic tensions in Serbia's Albanian-majority Kosovo province and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where strains persist between Muslims and ethnic Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians.
"This act shows how organized crime and terrorism threatens the entire region," said Mladen Ivanic, the Bosnian foreign minister.
The situation underscores how, despite progress in moving the economy away from a state-run system, a weak judiciary remains in place and parts of the military as well as some police units operate independently of the government, making it difficult for leaders to exert control over anyone the security forces want to protect.
Djindjic's entanglement with questionable figures dates back -- at the least -- to the October 2000 revolution that ousted Milosevic, when Djindjic made deals with key special police units to refrain from blocking the crowds that had thronged Milosevic's palace.
One of the first to decide to do business with Djindjic was the Unit for Special Operations, better known as the Red Berets, which is believed to have committed atrocities in wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Now, the Red Berets' former commander, Milorad Lukovic, better known as "Legija," is considered one of the most powerful figures in the Serbian underworld and is one of those suspected of being involved in Djindjic's slaying, according to Western diplomats and Serbian sources.
"The Red Berets were sanctioned murderers, trained killers.... Milosevic would say, 'Go to this village and kill some Croats or Muslims.' So they developed the unhealthy practice of doing stuff like this, and Legija's the head of them and they are now an organized crime mob," said a Western diplomat in Serbia.
Djindjic's death leaves the country's main republic in a potential political crisis. His 17-party coalition was held together largely by his force of personality, and there is no clear heir. Furthermore, there is little leadership on how to solve the deepening troubles in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians want to form their own state.
"Mr. Djindjic concentrated a lot of political power in his hands.... There were so few people besides him who were really in charge," said Ljiljana Smajlovic, a political analyst in Belgrade. "He was not a very popular politician, but he was very able to manage this 17-party coalition, and I see no one in the Serb government who can perform this magician's trick."
Most people believe that opposition parties will force new elections -- always a trauma in a place such as Serbia because they cause deep uncertainty about who the new leaders will be and what policies they will back. A deep concern is the extent to which the war crimes tribunal at The Hague will continue to loom over the country.
Many Serbs believed that when Milosevic went to The Hague, the wartime period could be put behind them, but as the indictments and arrests continue, fear has risen among former members of the Milosevic regime that they will be next.
"The Hague has cast a long shadow over the country," Smajlovic said. "It's not the people who are already indicted; it's because the list of suspects keeps getting longer and longer and there are rumors that hundreds of more could be indicted.
"Djindjic said we could put this behind us, but we couldn't."
Whether the republic will be able to weather this crisis will emerge in the coming weeks. The next seven to 10 days are crucial as the government tries to crack down on the organized crime gang reportedly responsible for the killing and as the new country called Serbia and Montenegro -- a loose confederation of what remained of Yugoslavia -- tries to put together a government. Early elections would be another sign of weakness. "It will be very bad if they call new elections. That will mean the mafia can precipitate elections," said Miroslav Prokopijevic, an economist who heads the Free Market Center, a think tank in Belgrade.
Special correspondent Cirjakovic reported from Belgrade and Times staff writer Rubin from Amman, Jordan.