Murdered by Milosevic

At a dissident's funeral, Belgrade's democracy movement worries about its future

Published April 14, 1999 9:01AM (EDT)

By all accounts Slavko Curuvija was not a saint. The Serbian publisher and editor had cruised in shady circles, at times even rubbing shoulders with members of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime. His personal life was, well, lively. Tall and charismatic, a dapper dresser with a neatly trimmed gray beard, the 50-year-old had a reputation as a serial womanizer. But in a society with a muzzled and largely government-controlled media, Curuvija was also one of Yugoslavia's most important sources of information. The editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph newspaper crusaded against the corruption and often brutal actions of Milosevic's cronies. To liberals, he was one of the good guys.

So last Sunday, on Orthodox Easter, when masked gunmen pumped seven bullets into his head, a jolt of fear and revulsion hit Belgrade's pro-democracy elite. On Wednesday, despite rumors they would be arrested, more than 2,000 of them -- artists, opposition politicians, journalists -- flocked into downtown Belgrade's sprawling "New Cemetery" to pay respect to one of their own. No one doubted who was behind the assassination. "It was a ritual murder, done on a major religious holiday, in front of his wife," says one of Curuvija's colleagues. "It was a message from the regime to people like us that we, too, can end up like that."

There's more than one war being waged in Yugoslavia today. Long before he goaded NATO into bombing him last month, Milosevic was fighting on at least three other fronts. One was the low-intensity war in Kosovo. The second was a political test of wills with the president of Montenegro, who had all but seceded from the rump Yugoslavia. The third: the gradual silencing or elimination of his liberal opponents, hundreds of thousands of whom marched in anti-government protests two years ago. Milosevic may be losing the air war with NATO, but by using those strikes as an odd sort of protective umbrella, he has made great strides in his other battles. The pogrom of Albanians in Kosovo is well under way. Montenegro's pro-democracy government is braced for a Belgrade-inspired military coup. And now his liberal opposition in Serbia is on the run, either out of the country or underground. Says one journalist, "We're virtually dead."

Make that literally, in the case of Curuvija. As if by design, a rare midday air raid siren blared just as his funeral began. It was a traditional Orthodox Christian affair. A procession of nearly 100 friends, many of them Daily Telegraph journalists, walked down the tree-lined path first. Next came an eight-piece brass band, followed by a black, Russian-made Lada hearse, its back hatch open to accommodate the long coffin. Finally, in quiet, dry-eyed dignity, came the family. Some of Belgrade's best and brightest fell in behind for the slow march to a far corner of the cemetery. They formed a large arc around the grave as two men lowered the coffin. Loved ones piled on the dirt, a close colleague gave a short speech. Nobody was arrested. Nobody spoke up in protest, either. Grief and shock floated through the onlookers, but the overriding emotion was fear. I approached a former student activist as he watched the mourners file out. "I don't want to say what I think now," he said quietly. "I just want to take care of myself."

That's what Milosevic's opposition is reduced to now. Once the NATO strikes began, he moved rapidly to finish a two-year process aimed at destroying the people who nearly toppled him with the winter 1996-97 protests. That process began with a classic divide-and-conquer move: he co-opted some of the opposition parties and marginalized the others. He ousted professors. He pushed moderate military leaders into retirement. Last fall he went after the independent press, enacting strict public information laws designed to crush his critics. Local television stations were closed. Under threat of imprisonment, Curuvija moved his printing operations to Montenegro and was reduced to smuggling his papers into Serbia. The biggest attack on the media, until Curuvija's assassination, came on the eve of the airstrikes, when the noted radio station B-92, which has won several international awards, was shut. It continued transmitting via the Internet, but last week its offices were closed, and then reopened this week under new, pro-regime, management.

As long as the war continues, the situation promises only to get worse. The airstrikes have unified most Serbs behind their leader, if only to defend their country. In effect, anybody who is anti-regime becomes anti-Serb as well. "Does NATO realize what it's done?" said another mourner as she left the cemetery. "We're finished now. I can't take it anymore. I'm leaving the country." Other liberals feel that may be the only solution. They're scared. At night they pray that NATO bombs avoid them. During they day, they hope Milosevic's henchmen do the same.

Ironically, the only faint source of hope comes from a man who once betrayed them. Vuk Draskovic, an eloquent speaker who marched at the front of the pro-democracy protests of 1996, but later meekly joined Milosevic's ruling coalition, gave a surprising speech condemning the killing of Curuvija on his television station Tuesday. "Those who ordered and committed the murder of Slavko Curuvija have pointed on Serbia a weapon more powerful than all of NATO's bombs and missiles," he thundered, warning of a civil war. At the funeral, some people wondered what Draskovic's speech really meant. Only one thing was certain. "Man, he has balls," exclaimed a journalist. These days, that may not be enough.

By J.G. Freund


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