I was sitting in a cafe in downtown Belgrade, when everyone's cell phone went off at once. The Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, had been shot twice in the chest and abdomen with a high-powered, large-caliber rifle. Two minutes later, the network crashed from overload and everyone's phone went dead. But the news followed quickly anyhow: Djindjic was DOA.
It's hard to describe just how shocking and sad this was. Outside Serbia, it was a brief headline, a bit of tut-tutting -- the Balkans are a violent place, you know -- and then forgotten. But in Serbia the reaction was convulsive: an outpouring of shock and grief, half a million people at the funeral procession, then a massive strike, with all the power of the State, against the forces that had organized the assassination. Djindjic was not very popular when he died. His approval ratings were in the single digits; basically, he was blamed for everything bad that had happened since Milosevice fell, and (perhaps more to the point) everything good that hadn't happened. Serbia's high unemployment, the steady drumbeat of indictments from the Hague, the continued dominance of the old criminal elites in business and society... people blamed the guy in charge. When he died, of course, the pendulum swung the other way; he became, for a little while, a hero and a martyr. That was wrong too, I think. Me? Personally, I always liked Djindjic. I only met him once, but he left a very favorable impression: charming, intelligent, energetic. Sure, giving a good impression is part of a politician's job, but that was part of the point; he was a good politician, in the sense of being technically good, and I respected that. And he had the right ideas, for the most part. He realized that Serbia had to break away from its past and chart a new course, towards reconciliation with the region and, eventually, towards Europe. That he wasn't able to make much progress was mostly not his fault. He made some difficult and, frankly, dirty compromises; but it's hard to see what else he could have done. A year later, I think we can see more clearly what was lost. Djindjic himself was a great loss to Serbia. If he wasn't a visionary or a healer, he was a sensible and pragmatic political technician with a firm grasp of what Serbia actually needed. Serbia needs more like him. Djindjic's leadership was replaced by the clumsy and short-lived Zivkovic administration, which collapsed last November. Today Kostunica, who was first his ally and then his despised rival, is presiding over a rickety new government. Some of Djindjic's assassins are on trial (though the trial itself is deeply troubled and troubing). At least one major suspect, the Special Forces chief-turned-gangster "Legija", remains at large. I suppose I should add something here about the greater significance of it all and what the long-term impact may be, and such. But I find that it still makes me really sad to think about it. And we go on.