Serbia Lionizes Its Slain Leader

Times Staff Writer

Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian leader who was felled by an assassin's bullet last week, was given a hero's burial Saturday after dignitaries from around the world paid tribute to him as a reformer and democrat.

"Dear Zoran, we stand before you in sorrow. We stand before you in disbelief," George Papandreou, the foreign minister of Greece, said at a graveside service Saturday afternoon.

"But we also stand before you ... committed to the work you and your country have already accomplished, committed to the vision you have struggled for: a peaceful and democratic southeastern Europe."

Soldiers fired guns in salute as Djindjic's casket was lowered into the ground. His widow, Ruzica, stood stoically, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses, while the couple's young son watched and their daughter sobbed.

Security was tight at the cemetery, where Djindjic, 50, was buried in the Alley of the Great, a section reserved for Serbian national heroes. Outside, hundreds of thousands of residents of this strife-torn country lined the streets in a display of grief that eclipsed any public adulation Djindjic received while he was alive.

Djindjic was gunned down in a sharpshooter attack outside government headquarters in downtown Belgrade on Wednesday. Authorities have blamed an organized gang and detained nearly 200 people suspected of directly or indirectly conspiring in the slaying.

His death left Serbia, which has failed twice to muster enough votes to elect a president, without a prime minister as well. But members of his party have vowed to forge ahead with the painful economic and democratic reforms that earned him the support of the West but also a large measure of unpopularity at home.

Djindjic is likely to be best remembered as the man who helped engineer the downfall of the ironfisted former president, Slobodan Milosevic, and then handed him over to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

It was a politically risky move in a country where former paramilitaries who served Milosevic still work in the state security apparatus. But Djindjic knew that it was necessary to gain the West's confidence and, more important, hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and credits.

"It was like deciding to cut your finger off without anesthesia when you have gangrene," Djindjic once said. "The question was whether we would all become infected because of one man."

He brushed aside concerns that his personal standing would suffer.

"You cannot do anything with popularity," he said, "but you can with credits."

Given to zesty living, a colorful personal style and designer suits, Djindjic became Serbia's first nonsocialist and non-Communist prime minister in 50 years after his party's landslide election victory in December 2000. The affiliated republics of Serbia and Montenegro are the remnants of what was once Yugoslavia.

His ascension capped a political career that began when he was a young man. The son of an army officer, he was jailed while in college for trying to set up an autonomous student organization critical of Yugoslavia's then-Communist government.

He left the country for Germany, where he received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Konstanz, and did not return to Yugoslavia for 12 years, until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Together with other Serbian dissidents and intellectuals, Djindjic helped found the Democratic Party and in 1997 became the first non-Communist mayor of Belgrade.

But two years later, he made a serious political misstep by fleeing the capital when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began bombing it in a campaign to stop Serbian forces from engaging in "ethnic cleansing" in the province of Kosovo. Many never forgave him for leaving.

Djindjic redeemed himself somewhat during the massive public protests that ousted Milosevic in October 2000, persuading Milosevic's security forces not to intervene.

"We told them, 'It is our decision to bring people onto the streets, and it's your decision whether to use violence -- and be remembered by history as murderers for a dictator -- or to do nothing and be remembered as heroes,' " he said.

As prime minister, Djindjic earned enemies for his pro-Western stance, which led to difficult economic reforms that have thrown many out of work, and for his controversial cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal. At the time of his death, he was preparing to mount an offensive against Belgrade's gangs, whose ranks include many former paramilitaries who fear being turned over to The Hague for committing atrocities during the Balkan civil wars of the last decade.

In spite of his unpopularity, Djindjic's burial Saturday after three days of official mourning drew crowds not seen for a funeral since the 1980 death of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the Communist Yugoslav leader.

Under overcast skies, a sea of mourners followed Djindjic's flag-draped coffin on the short procession from Belgrade's St. Sava cathedral to the cemetery.

"A reformer here has to die before people understand him," said Katarina Todorov, 29, who had turned out to pay her respects.

Her friend Dijana Mitrovic, 24, added: "He was a pillar. I'm not saying that he didn't make mistakes, but one who is trying to achieve a lot, one who is doing a lot, is bound to make some mistakes."

Many had welcomed Djindjic's pragmatism and regarded him as the nation's best hope for ending its years in the wilderness.

"Politics is a decision-making process, not a process of analyzing and contemplating," he once told an interviewer. "The consequences of some decisions are unlikely to please everyone, but they should be good enough to please society in general."

Foreign dignitaries in attendance at Djindjic's funeral included Robin Cook, the leader of Britain's House of Commons, and Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a former U.S. secretary of State.

Also present were the leaders of neighboring Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, countries that have had turbulent relations with Serbia.

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