Mafia don or martyr?

Was Serbia's prime minister murdered because of his politics or his underworld activities?

Two months ago, Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, was shot down by a sniper in central Belgrade. Western diplomats and many of the journalists who flew in for Djindjic's funeral saw him as the victim of a politi- cal power struggle between the post-Milosevic order and the relics of that sinister regime. But was Djindjic's murder, in reality, just the latest in a long line of political killings which has marked Serbia's history over the past century?

A hundred years ago, the last Obrenovic king, Alexander, and his hated wife, Draga, were butchered in Belgrade. In 1934, the man who inspired that regime change, King Alexander Karadjordjevic, was himself shot down - 20 years after the agent who helped him organise the coup of 1903 had provided pistols to a group of young Bosnians in Sarajevo in June 1914.

Djindjic's assassination prompted the Serbian government to impose a state of emergency. As many as 8,000 people were detained (suspects can be detained for up to 60 days without access to a lawyer or their families) and the property of alleged participants in the crime was demolished without waiting for convictions. Newspapers were banned and even coverage of the Serbian parliament on television was suspended.

The Serbian press remains tightly controlled: it can report only what is circumscribed by ill-defined notions of the "public good" and security. Many suspect that these restrictions serve to inhibit the uncovering of the unsavoury mechanics of privatisation. At the height of the state of emergency, for instance, Serbia's main steel plant at Smederevo was sold to US Steel for less than the annual pay of the American giant's chairman - and less than its scrap value. But the company's huge debt to foreign banks wasn't taken on by the American company.

The anti-Milosevic coalition has been engaged in a power struggle ever since it split up after Djindjic co-operated with Vojislav Kostunica to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. Kostunica, former president of the now defunct Yugoslav federation, regards the state of emergency as being used to help ensure the political control of Djindjic's Democratic Party - a party that has surrounded itself with a panoply of bogus smaller parties to give the impression of pluralism. (He also points out that, after 1945, Tito used the Popular Front in the same way, to hide the Communist Party's dictatorship.)

Ordinary Serbs whisper that the reasons for Djindjic's murder were far greater than mere politics: they see Djindjic less as a martyr than a fallen mafia don.

Looking at the pictures of the black-leather-coated mourners at the state funeral and seeing at least one notorious mafioso among Djindjic's pall-bearers, a Serbian historian joked to me that it was like "the funeral in The Godfather - except they were better dressed".

The dirty secret behind the victory of Serbia's democratic opposition over Milosevic's regime was the deal between Djindjic and a shady group of special forces policemen and gangsters who provided the muscle to bring pro-westerners to power. Now it is alleged that the key partner in that deal, Milorad Lukovic (nicknamed Legija for his service in the French Foreign Legion), ordered Djindjic's assassination after the two fell out over the spoils of victory - which, by the end of 2002, were shrinking fast.

Zoran Djindjic had a doctorate in philosophy from Konstanz University in Germany but, like many postgraduates from the communist world, he used his access to the west in the 1980s to go into a little unofficial business. Smuggling consumer desirables back into his native Yugoslavia brought Djindjic into contact with less scholarly figures. Soon he was acting as the frontman for emerging mafia clans that wanted everything from designer jeans to industrial machinery for Yugoslavia's emerging market.

Djindjic's return to the country in 1989 and entry into active politics coincided with Milosevic's triumph in Serbia and the country's downward spiral into paramilitary warfare and sanctions - both of which encouraged organised crime to flourish.

The later years of Milosevic's rule were pockmarked with murders among Belgrade's competing gangs. Politicians and paramilitaries regularly fell foul of professional hit men. Ironically, Djindjic survived this period unscathed - but since his murder it has emerged that Legija's so-called Zemun Gang were behind many of the previously unsolved crimes, suggesting that Djindjic's charmed existence in the twilight years of Milosevic's regime owed a lot to good connections with his ultimate nemesis.

Part of Djindjic's political clout came from his protection of (and by) the Balkans' cigarette-smuggling mafia. As many more people smoke fags than heroin, contraband tobacco is a much bigger money-spinner than narcotics. Like his Montenegrin political ally Milo Djukanovic, Djindjic provided political protection to smugglers moving bulky consignments of millions of cigarettes via former Yugoslavia into the EU.

The west turned a blind eye to the loss of tax revenue so long as it needed political allies against Milosevic. But the smugglers were not as easygoing: a wave of assassinations hit the Balkan cigarette smugglers from Bulgaria via Belgrade.

If Zoran Djindjic was the victim of a falling out among thieves over the spoils of smuggling and privatisation, then Serbia's latest political murder is not merely another bloodletting in the Balkan tradition, but a step towards the country's globalisation.

Mark Almond is a lecturer in history and fellow of Oriel College, Oxford