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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zoran: More Than a Leader

A couple of weeks ago in Belgrade, I walked into Zoran Djindjic's living room and sat down on the couch. There he was, Serbia's first democratically elected prime minister, talking away, telephone in one hand and remote control in the other. It is hard, now, to believe he is gone, gunned down outside his office.

We looked at photographs of my daughters, and he marveled at how the little one resembled my husband. The three of us had been friends back in the days when few outside of Serbia knew Djindjic, the man who would become leader of his country and send his political arch-enemy, Slobodan Milosevic, to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Over a long night of talk and wine, we discussed America's code orange security alert, Iraq, Serbia and the world as phantasmagoria: This was Djindjic, a hundred things at the same time. It was the way he ran Serbia -- masterminding, pressing forward with plans to wrench a fractured country into the modern age.

We talked about a failed assassination attempt on him a few days before -- a truck had swerved into his car. He seemed unshaken. I told him I was worried about how easily I had entered his house. He made a call to bolster security. I think he assumed he was smarter than his enemies. He and his wife, Ruzica, did not seem afraid. I felt humbled by their courage. Fit and slim, Djindjic was on crutches after rupturing his Achilles tendon the week before in an exhibition soccer match: the government versus the police. He laughed at how the police officers were surprised to see him, and did not know whether to win or to throw the game to the prime minister.

His murder is a tragedy for Serbia, and a lesson for the United States. When he and his fellow reformers overthrew the Milosevic regime in 2000, they inherited a security system that had been built up Soviet-style by Marshal Tito. Under Milosevic's stewardship and through years of war and economic decline, that force became an amalgam of paramilitary and organized crime.

Djindjic and his reformers were able to remove Milosevic, and later to send him to be tried, because the secret service units had become disillusioned with the Serbian strongman. But even with him gone they remained unreformed and untouchable.

Something similar is likely to play out wherever America tries to uproot a nasty dangerous despot -- as it helped to oust Milosevic and is trying to oust Saddam Hussein. Even having American troops occupy a country is unlikely to make a difference in the short run. A regime, in particular one that has developed in isolation like Iraq, Serbia and North Korea, does not die with one man. And the security apparatus becomes like a Hydra fighting for survival.

The reformist government lacked the strength to dismantle that system. Indeed, after taking power in 2001 Djindjic opted at first to live in an uneasy coexistence with the security forces. However, he knew that organized crime and corrupt security officers presented a major obstacle to reform. In the last few months, Djindjic was gearing up for a final showdown with the renegade special forces and their taskmasters in the Serbian police who make up the Zemun mafia clan. These men spilled blood in Bosnia, Kosovo, Croatia, the streets of Belgrade and abroad; now they dominate the traffic in drugs and prostitutes and immigrants throughout the Balkans. The prime minister knew they were threatening his life. But he told me he would simply let the thugs kill each other and then send the survivors to The Hague.

His murder is another reminder to the Serbian people that those who committed crimes against Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars came to roost at home. And these men could not stand the fact that Djindjic was trying to wrest control of Serbia.

Two weeks ago I asked Djindjic when Serbia would send the remaining indicted war criminals, especially Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general, to the the dock in The Hague. It was too difficult at the time, he answered, there was no one who dared to arrest Mladic. But, he said, he planned to send three army officers accused of crimes committed at Vukovar in Croatia right away. After that, he said, he had been told that the West would stop exerting so much pressure on him to comply with the tribunal.

There is no doubt that the men who killed Djindjic represented a nexus of hard-core nationalists and criminals who hated him because they knew he wanted to rein them in. They hoped that with those bullets, Serbia would fall into disarray and stop cooperating with The Hague, and that the next elected leader would pale next to Djindjic in courage and intelligence. I fear they were right.

Laura Silber, senior policy adviser at the Open Society Institute and co-author of "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation," contributed this comment to The New York Times.