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After Prime Minister’s Assassination, Serbian Jews Feel Sorrow — and Fear

March 14, 2003
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Serbia’s Jews are mourning the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was hailed as a “great friend” of the Jewish community.

A board meeting of the Jewish community in Subotica, Serbia, had just begun Wednesday when word came that Djindjic had been gunned down outside his office in Belgrade.

“We had just started our meeting when we heard that he had been rushed to the hospital,” the president of the community, Mira Poljakovic, told JTA.

“We were in shock and couldn’t believe it had happened,” she said. “Very quickly we learned that he had died, and we put out a black flag.

“Mr. Djindjic was a great friend of the Jews and of our community,” she said. “We will hold a commemoration meeting for him, and we will never forget him.”

Serbia’s 3,000 Jews are highly integrated into mainstream society. The assassination of Djindjic plunged them, like their fellow citizens, into a state of shock and grief — and fear about the future.

“We are shocked,” said Poljakovic’s daughter Nina, who works in the office of Subotica’s mayor. “We don’t know what to say. We have lost the cleverest and most capable person in our country.”

Djindjic was one of the architects of the ouster of strongman President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, and was a symbol of attempts to introduce Western-style democratic reforms in Serbia.

Suspicion concerning his assassination centered on the powerful, mafia-like organized crime gangs that Djindjic had been trying to combat.

Rumors swirled around Belgrade that Djindjic may have accepted help from gang leaders during the anti-Milosevic protests, and was assassinated because of his later crackdown.

“In my opinion, Djindjic was the most progressive and Western-oriented politician in Serbia,” said one Jew from Novi Sad, north of Belgrade.

“Yes, there were rumors that he was corrupt and involved in many unkosher things, but what politician isn’t?” he asked. “Even if he was, and I am not sure that the rumors are true, this was not the way to deal with it. It’s a pity that Serbian people can solve their problems only this way.

“The assassination was a warning that nobody is safe,” he said. “If they could get Djindjic, they could get anyone.”

Jews in other parts of the volatile Balkan region also expressed sorrow and concern at Djindjic’s murder.

Zdravko Sami, vice president of the Jewish community in Macedonia, said he was horrified at the assassination and what it signified. Until its independence, Macedonia was part of the former Yugoslavia.

“It’s horrible to see our neighbors, who only started on the road to stabilizing and improving society, plunge again into uncertainty and the danger of destabilization and unrest, just when things had started to go well,” Sami said. “Everyone is glued to TV and bursting to get the papers to read the latest news, anticipating and worrying about what comes next.”

Sami said it was “indicative that a criminal gang has been accused of the perpetration of this inhuman crime,” particularly in the context of a number of other recent successful or attempted assassinations in various Balkan countries.

The Jews in Subotica, north of Belgrade on the Hungarian border, felt particularly touched by Djindjic’s murder.

In March 2002, almost a year to the day before his assassination, Djindjic had visited the 220-member community, the third largest in Serbia.

It was his first official visit as prime minister to a Jewish community. During the visit, Djindjic pledged government support for efforts to restore the city’s century-old synagogue as a symbol of tolerance and multi-culturalism.

“Thanks to him, some 20 million dinars” — about $300,000 — “have been put aside in the Serbian budget to be used for the synagogue reconstruction,” Poljakovic said.

Poljakovic and many other Jews in Subotica had been strong opposition supporters and had taken part in the October 2000 street protests that led to Milosevic’s ouster.

“Thanks to Djindjic, the process of democratization was introduced in our country, and we can only hope his people won’t spoil what he achieved so far,” Poljakovic said. “We all owe it to him.”

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