The Washington Times

The only time I ever saw Zoran Djindjic, the prime minister of Serbia who was assassinated as he stepped out of a car in front of his Belgrade office last week, was at an off-the-record appearance he made in Washington not long after Slobodan Milosevic gave up as ruler of Yugoslavia. One appearance was enough, however, for him to make a lasting impression as one of the most serious and brilliant politicians on the world stage. What happened last week was a timely and shocking reminder that even the serious and brilliant are sometimes not serious and brilliant enough for the tasks they face.

Mr. Djindjic studied philosophy in his youth, and I will offer from memory one quotation the ground rules of the meeting, which took place at the American Enterprise Institute, having expired with his death that beautifully captures the depth of his thinking about politics. He was emphasizing the need for economic development and investment in the former Yugoslavia. As he explained it, “Without money, there is only politics. And when there is only politics, there is hate.”

That is as concise a summary as one could wish of the way in which civil society, including the marketplace, tempers the passions of politics that lead people to try to kill each other to get what they want. When people exchange goods for money in a properly functioning market, they are engaging in a transaction that is mutually beneficial. The importance of this goes beyond the economic. They in effect voluntarily treat each other as equals in that they share the same end of benefiting by working together in the transaction. Multiplied across the whole of society, these transactions make for a social fabric of at least a formal equality, at least in relation to the transactions. This may in turn lead to a fuller sense of equality; at a minimum, though, this bourgeois life opens a space in which people can be free from participating in political conflict and also tends to tone political conflict down to something less than life-or-death struggle.

Djindjic understood this. And he understood the task before him. The first was to engineer the downfall of Mr. Milosevic, the Serbian strongman who had set what remained of Yugoslavia on a disastrous course since the end of the Cold War, culminating in NATO’s air campaign forcing him from Kosovo in 1999. Djindjic, as he described it, knew that a united opposition could win a majority in an election Mr. Milosevic had called for September 2000, apparently in the belief that his popular support remained high. The trick, however, was to settle on a candidate against whom Mr. Milosevic could not call out the army once defeated.

Mr. Djindjic knew he was not that candidate. Someone with stronger Serbian nationalist credentials was necessary. The opposition rallied around Vojislav Kostunica. The strategy worked brilliantly. Mr. Milosevic was initially defiant, but found that he lacked the popular support, and more important, the muscle in the form of the army to annul the election results.

Mr. Djindjic became prime minister of Serbia, with Mr. Kostunica serving as president of Yugoslavia. The clash between the two was emblematic of the extraordinary political task Mr. Djindjic had set for himself: reversing a decade of suicidal [and murderous] Serbian nationalism and aligning Serbia once and for all with the West.

The Djindjic event I attended took place in spring 2001. One therefore was looking at the world through that pre-September 11 prism. As I walked out, I remember thinking, now here was a politician with a mission worthy of his talents. If you looked around the world, few leaders, especially in the West, faced anything even remotely comparable. In mature, stable democracies, the greatest challenge for most was merely the gaining and keeping of power. The new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe had required greatness, and some produced it sooner than others, but most seemed to be on their way. True, the United States had vast security responsibilities around the world, but at the time it was rather unclear what threatened us, and anyway, I had concluded, such was the overwhelming character of American power that even Bill Clinton could wield it relatively effectively, as in Kosovo.

But Mr. Djindjic. If Mr. Djindjic got it right, I thought, he would be remembered as really the father of the modern Serbia that would be emerging, its redeemer against the depredations of the Milosevic era.

And now Mr. Djindjic is dead. He made vast progress, but Serbia’s future remains an entirely unsettled question. He turns out to have been a martyr to the cause of a liberal, democratic Serbia, not the one who brought it into being.

Mr. Djindjic didn’t get it right. I thought he would, and I think he did also. And maybe that is the reason he didn’t: an insufficient respect for the abyss, which can yawn at any moment, whether it’s the twin towers coming down in Manhattan or two bullets in Belgrade.