Who killed Arkan?

The rise and fall of Zeljko Raznatovic symbolizes how corrupt and morally bankrupt Serbia has become under Slobodan Milosevic.

Published January 17, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

Highlighting the degree to which ordinary Serbs perceive their government to be intimately linked with Belgrade's criminal underworld, speculation in the Serbian capital on who ordered the
assassination of notorious warlord and war crimes suspect Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic in a Belgrade hotel lobby Saturday immediately centered on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Shot three times in a hail of submachine-gun fire while drinking with friends and bodyguards in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, Arkan died Saturday in a Belgrade emergency room. A bodyguard, Dragan Garic, and a business associate, Milenko
Mandic, aka Manda, were also killed in the shooting.

Arkan's murder is the latest in a series of more than a dozen
gangster-style killings in Belgrade that have targeted figures who, like Arkan, had plenty of blood on their hands, profited from war and were in the employ of the Milosevic regime. It's the type of crime most people in this city have gotten used to remaining unsolved but speak of in whispers as having been ordered by "forces very high up."

"The police killed him, so why would they arrest anybody?" said a taxi driver who drove past the blocked-off area of New Belgrade a few hours after the killing.

"I lean to the conclusion that the regime is behind the assassination," speculated one Serbian analyst. "Not because I would know about any recent developments regarding Arkan's conflicts with the regime, but because of the circumstances of the assassination: Just how the hell did they manage to kill him and escape, in a hotel full of the security staff?"

"Someone in the regime knew about what was going to happen," suggested one Western analyst who asked not to be named. "It was someone who was watching Arkan a long, long time, someone who knew his patterns very well and presumably someone who could have known when his guard would be down. But there is no question that this killing is a bonus to the regime. One less key eyewitness for The Hague."

The United Nations war crimes tribunal secretly indicted Arkan for crimes against humanity in 1997, and after his indictment was made public during the NATO intervention last spring, Arkan was rumored to have contacted authorities in Belgium -- where his daughter lives -- about the possibility of seeking asylum there. Authorities reportedly told Arkan he would be extradited to The Hague. In addition, there are rumors that Arkan had been negotiating a possible immunity deal (in exchange for testimony against Milosevic) with The Hague through his Italian lawyer and business associate Giovanni DiStefano, though DiStefano has denied that Arkan was preparing to surrender.

One thing is sure: with Arkan's death, another key link tying
Milosevic to war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo -- for which the Yugoslav leader was indicted by the U.N. tribunal last May -- has disappeared.

It's now clear that the most dangerous thing to be in Serbia these days is a former friend of the regime. The list of former Milosevic associates who have been assassinated and whose murders remain mysteriously unsolved is growing. Former Serbian Interior Minister Radovan Stojcic, known as "Badza" ("the hulk"), was similarly assassinated in a Belgrade pizzeria in 1997. Zoran "the Rifle Butt" Todorovic -- general-secretary of Milosevic's wife's political party, JUL -- was assassinated as he arrived at work in 1997. A former friend of Milosevic's son Marko, Vlada "the Club" Kovacevic, was killed outside the Sava business center, just down the street from the Intercontinental, where Arkan was killed.

The Milosevic regime is not making much effort to act surprised about Arkan's killing. While Belgrade's newspapers ran massive front page stories on Arkan's assassination -- all of them were sold out on Sunday -- the regime-controlled Politika only mentioned it on Page 20, and the regime-controlled television didn't broadcast anything about it until hours after Arkan's assassination was broadcast worldwide on CNN, the BBC and independent Serbian television. Similarly, though all of the major political opposition parties issued statements about Arkan's murder, neither Milosevic's Socialist Party, nor his wife's JUL have issued official statements.

The culprit and motive behind Arkan's killing may fuel speculation, but his violent death surprised few in this city where he was
both notorious as a mafia thug, war profiteer and killer, and celebrated as a Serbian patriot, paramilitary leader and husband of the country's most beloved pop star, Svetlana Velickovic -- also known as Ceca.

Arkan, 47, was the leader of a notoriously ruthless paramilitary group, the Tigers, which committed atrocities in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, for which Arkan was indicted for war crimes. He was also the owner of a casino in the Hotel Yugoslavia -- which was bombed by NATO last spring -- a Belgrade pastry shop and the country's premier soccer team, Obilic.

But Arkan reportedly became one of Serbia's richest men by
busting sanctions and awarding himself lucrative oil and gas concessions in Serbian-held Bosnia and Yugoslavia -- a business in which he reportedly competed with Milosevic's son, Marko. He also recruited volunteers to the Tigers with the incentive that they could plunder the homes and steal the possessions of the thousands of Muslims, Croats and Albanians they killed, raped or expelled. Arkan originally recruited his paramilitaries from the Red Star football club, where he was
president of the soccer fan association.
When the U.N. war crime tribunal made public it's indictment of Arkan last spring, it was hoping to discourage would-be paramilitaries from signing on and killing in Kosovo.

The fact that Arkan became so ostentatiously wealthy and powerful -- by straddling the worlds of organized crime, state-sanctioned ethnic violence and legitimate business -- symbolizes how morally bankrupt and corrupt Serbia has become under Milosevic. That crime pays more than anything else here is obvious. But Milosevic has also helped engineer a system in which those who seek to profit in business, government and other endeavors are corrupted. Now that some of those figures are looking for a way out of sanctions-beleaguered Yugoslavia -- and are considering offering
international authorities information on Milosevic in exchange for the right to travel abroad, regain access to frozen bank accounts and immunity from prosecution by the U.N. tribunal -- they pose a threat to Milosevic. And the stakes have become high for them, apparently, as well.

Arkan's life of crime and connections to the Serbian government, however, precede Milosevic. Born in 1952 in Slovenija, Zeljko Raznatovic was reportedly a delinquent teenager whose father -- a senior air force officer in Tito's military -- asked if the Yugoslav security services could put him to work.

Raznatovic reportedly became a professional hit man for the Yugoslav
Interior Ministry, assassinating Croatian nationalists in Europe who were considered enemies of the state. A convicted armed robber and quasi-Houdini, Arkan mysteriously escaped from prisons in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and even from a Swedish courtroom where he was being tried, reportedly with the help of the Yugoslav security service. One of the fake passports he was issued by the Yugoslav security services was said to be in the name Arkan, which he adopted as a nickname.

But it was under Milosevic that Arkan rose from bank robber to Serbian icon.

Until his murder, Arkan was an untouchable and unrivaled mafia king in Belgrade, where organized crime flourishes and good people keep their heads down and eyes averted in resignation to the more powerful forces of corruption, the endless drone of official lying and the gangland violence all around. Arkan, his rock star wife, Ceca (they were married during the height of the Bosnian war, with Arkan decked out in a World War I Serbian general's uniform),
and their two children lived in an enormous pink villa with a glass
elevator down the street from Milosevic's house in the exclusive
neighborhood of diplomats and high government officials called Dedinje.

Surrounded by bodyguards, dressed in expensive suits and accompanied by his glamorous wife, Arkan would show up at his favorite hangouts -- mostly hotels like the one he was killed at, so expensive that the cost of one night's stay far exceeds most people's monthly salaries. His showy entrances were
announced by the arrival of his unmistakable fleet of armored sports utility vehicles -- the sight of which struck terror in the hearts of non-Serbs who were brutalized by his ruthless paramilitary Tigers in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia. The navy-blue SUV he was driven in on the night of his assassination, with the license plate number BG-19-99, still stood parked outside the hotel the day after Arkan's mortally wounded body had been removed.

"Many people here liked Arkan," said one Belgrade waiter who asked not to be named. "He paid 400 German deutsche marks pension to every family of his volunteer guards. He gave money to the orphanage on Tirsova Street. He was fighting to defend Serbs in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo."

In addition to rumors that Arkan could serve as a witness linking Milosevic to war crimes, Arkan was also reported to support the pro-Western president of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, who has championed the independence of Montenegro from Milosevic's Yugoslavia. Djukanovic was quoted Monday as saying that he might extradite Milosevic to The Hague if he came to Montenegro, making Milosevic's stomping grounds in the Yugoslavia he has helped destroy ever smaller.

Opposition politician Zoran Djindjic has credited Arkan with informing him during the NATO air strikes that his life was in danger from regime assassins, prompting Djindjic to
seek refuge in Djukanovic's Montenegro.

In this atmosphere of politically motivated gangland violence, Arkan's murder prompts the inevitable question of who's next?

Analysts point to other figures who may know too much about Milosevic's direct complicity in war crimes. High on the list are Jovica Stanisic, the former head of the
Serbian state security service, fired by Milosevic last year; Franko
Simatovic, a paramilitary warlord known as "Frenki," whose paramilitary thugs were active in killings in Kosovo; and Radovan Karadzic, who served
as the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs and is the most sought-after war crimes suspect in Bosnia.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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