Back to Archive Hope on the Balkans   Kosov@ Crisis 2000
Back to Kosov@ Crisis
Murder in Belgrade: an elite feud or a drug war?


Yugoslav Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic was assassinated Feb. 7 in a Belgrade restaurant. Although media rumors have linked his murder to that of Serb warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, both deaths are in fact results of a much longer string of killings in Serbia. Ten powerful Belgrade men have been killed over the past three years in what seems to be a complex and organized attempt to wipe out many of President Slobodan Milosevic's closest allies. Are they split by a deadly internal feud, or caught up in a dangerous drug war?


The assassination of Yugoslav Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic in Belgrade on Feb. 7 is not an isolated incident. Media speculation has suggested a link between Bulatovic's murder and the recent murder of Serb warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as Arkan. But these two murders are actually only the most recent of almost a dozen similar killings in Belgrade over a three-year period. Bulatovic is the most recent, and highest- ranking, victim in a long string of assassinations of increasingly prominent and influential Serbs.

Bulatovic was shot while sitting in a restaurant in a soccer club and died several hours later. The two men with him, a banker and the restaurant owner, were also injured in the attack. The defense minister was a close friend of Yugoslav Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic - no relation to the defense minister -- and a strong supporter of President Slobodan Milosevic. Although of Montenegrin origin, Bulatovic was a Serb nationalist, which led to his alleged relationship with two of the most wanted war criminals in Serbia: Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

Before, on Jan. 15, two gunmen shot and killed Arkan in a hotel lobby in Belgrade. Arkan's reputation as a well-connected paramilitary leader, brutal war criminal, wealthy mobster and elusive international thief left many unanswered questions as to the identity and motive of his murderers. Several people have reportedly been identified as suspects; some have police backgrounds.

But these are not isolated cases. The two most recent assassinations resemble other murders stretching back as far as three years, suggesting a coordinated assault on Milosevic's allies. In February 1997 Vlada "Tref" Kovacevic, a close friend of Milosevic's son Marko, was killed in a shopping mall. Kovacevic was made wealthy by black market dealings, especially the smuggling of cigarettes and cars. Despite his close ties to the ruling family, no suspects were arrested in connection with his death.

In April 1997 Deputy Interior Minister Radovan "Badza" Stojicic was shot dead in a Belgrade restaurant. Stojicic, director of approximately 80,000 police, had just received an award from Milosevic for his anti-terrorist work in Kosovo, in January 1997. For the same reason, the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) considered him a war criminal. Badza also knew Arkan. Their relationship went back at least as far as 1991, when Badza began equipping Arkan's paramilitary group, the Tigers, with weapons for use in Croatia and Bosnia. Afterward, the two remained associates, leading to rumors that Badza was also entangled in drug trafficking and arms smuggling. No suspects were arrested for his death.

Another close Milosevic ally, Zoran "Kundak" Todorovic, was killed later that year. Todorovic, secretary-general of the Yugoslav United Left - the party of Milosevic's wife - was killed in October 1997. Todorovic was one of the richest men in Yugoslavia and profited from special treatment by the ruling family, which granted him exclusive rights to export and import valuable commodities such as copper and wheat. The week after his death there were rumors that a suspect had been arrested, but there are no confirmed reports of an arrest or conviction.

In May 1998, Jusuf Bulic was shot dead while leaving a café. Although he has no direct public connection to Milosevic, Bulic was a known member of the Belgrade underground who profited from drug trafficking and gambling. Bulic, who also owned a chain of betting shops and a first division soccer club, was reputed to be linked to Arkan through underworld connections.

In August 1998, paramilitary leader Slobodan Miljkovic was shot to death in a bar. Miljkovic, also known as Major Mauser, was wanted as a war criminal. A former police officer was convicted of his murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Also noteworthy, shortly after Miljkovic's death, his attorney gave the United Nations investigators documents that allegedly incriminated other Serb leaders wanted for war crimes.

All of the men listed above were connected to the Serbian regime - and to each other - in one way or another. They were Serb nationalists, several of whom organized paramilitary units to subdue enemies in Yugoslavia's wars with Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Most, if not all, were tied in with the lucrative, dangerous Belgrade underground. They used their influence to grow wealthy and their high-level connections to remain powerful and untouchable, or almost untouchable. They were killed in professional hits and in most cases their murderers were not found.

In addition to the murdered mobsters, political players and war criminals, three high profile police were killed in Belgrade between 1997 and 1999. Miroslav Bizic was a former policeman working as a private detective. He was known in particular for his investigations into murdered criminals. Milorad Vlahovic, deputy chief of the criminal investigation unit of Belgrade's police, was killed in March 1999. He had reportedly been an associate of Badza's. Then in July, Dragan Simic, who headed a Belgrade homicide and sex crimes department, was shot outside his home. None of them had any apparent relationship with Milosevic, but all were in positions to investigate the criminal underworld populated by these deceased associates of Milosevic.

Admittedly, Belgrade is teeming with crime, black market sales, high-level corruption and murders, many of which are never solved. But the recent attacks on such high-profile figures as Arkan and Bulatovic are causing the common Belgrade citizen to worry for his own safety, reasoning that if such prominent and protected men can be shot in public, no one is safe in the capital.

In fact, the reality appears to be just the opposite. Because of these men's influential positions and dangerous careers, they have been targeted. To determine who is methodically executing them, we must ask: Who gains from their deaths and why?

Milosevic himself might like to have fewer potential witnesses around if he ever faces the United Nations war crimes tribunal. But, the men being killed are the few remaining friends of the president. They were also the men in control of the security apparatus that Milosevic relies upon for his personal safety, as well as to guarantee national security. And, this could actually backfire: Remember the case of Slobodan Miljkovic, whose lawyer handed over war crimes testimony after his death.

If Milosevic himself is not the perpetrator, than perhaps a foreign intelligence agency is. Milosevic has accused foreign entities, such as the CIA, and Montenegrin nationalists of the recent slew of murders. Neither of these suspects would gain much, however, from a scattered and long-term campaign against Belgrade's most elite criminals. Also, Milosevic's accusation infers that a foreign power has maintained a covert operation in downtown Belgrade for three years - which is hard to believe.

The Serb opposition could be suspected of foul play. However, this would only be useful if they actually assassinated the president. Plus, the Serb opposition is burdened with a history of internal friction [] and disorganization that would prevent a long-term assassination campaign.

Two more realistic scenarios do present themselves as potential explanations. The first: Belgrade's most powerful men are involved in infighting, and these deaths are a result of high-level retaliatory warfare. Serbia is war-torn and impoverished. Its upper class earns its wealth through power, threats and criminal activities. The underground is overcrowded and the military, police and paramilitaries each vie to be the most powerful. Milosevic is relatively safe in power but his associates are climbing over each other to claw their way to safety and riches - or at least the Serb version of them.

This kind of competition between skilled fighters and seasoned mobsters could certainly lead to a three year long string of assassinations. And, the overwhelming lack of closure in most of these cases suggests infighting, since Milosevic would forcefully reply to any external attack on his closest ranks.

The second scenario: Belgrade's elite is engaged in a turf war with the primary drug traffickers in the Balkans, who are Kosovar Albanians. The poverty and lawlessness of the Balkans - as well as its convenient geography - funnels immensely profitable drug trade through the region. Heroin from Turkey is transported through the Balkans to Western Europe and the United States. An estimated 80 percent of Europe's heroin enters through the Balkan route, which is worth approximately $400 billion per year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Kosovar Albanians have their own mafia to control the drug trade. They rely on strong ethnic identification and extended family loyalty to hold together a cohesive smuggling operation. They also were tightly tied to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the arms smuggling needed to equip the KLA during its war with Serbia. If the Serb elite is vying for the Albanian-dominated heroin trade, it could very well be meeting with years of assassinations.

Not only do ethnic Albanians have a reputation of fighting to protect their drug trade, but they already despise the Serb nationalists for their violence toward ethnic Albanians. Milosevic was known to use the paramilitaries for specific revenge missions in Kosovo, which could have been in response to the slaying of his own comrades in Belgrade. Not coincidentally, none of these men were killed during the NATO bombing of Kosovo last summer, when drug battles would have been overshadowed by war.

Whether stemming from an internal quarrel or a drug war compounded by ethnicity, the argument remains that these eleven deaths are related. Bulatovic and Arkan did not die in isolated assassinations.

Source: Stratfor Kosovo Crisis Center

Back to Archive | Back to Kosov@ Crisis