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Death of a Balkan Reformer

More than two years after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, a sense of normalcy finally seemed to be returning along with the spring in the Balkan country of Serbia. Reformers, led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, were in command of government both at the Serb Republic level and at the federal level. Stability and economic development seemed within reach. Foreign investors had even begun to bite.

That sense of growing stability was shattered early on the afternoon of Mar. 12, when a sniper cut down Djindjic, 50, as he headed for a side entrance to the Serbian government headquarters in downtown Belgrade. About 200 meters away from the third floor of a dingy, half-vacant building, a marksman pumped two bullets into the Prime Minister's chest and abdomen. In minutes, Serbia's champion of reform was dead.

Two suspects have been arrested. Meanwhile, Serbia's parliament declared a state of emergency, allowing special powers to police and the military and placing temporary restrictions on the press.

TIRELESS PROPONENT. Serbia has seen its share of political assassinations over the past several years. But the murder of its energetic and charismatic leader stunned Serbs. Many observers, domestic and foreign, sensed Djindjic would be hard to replace. "There are a lot of strong people in the Serb government," says U.S. Ambassador to Serbia William Montgomery. "The big question is whether they can select a leader with the strength to unify and lead them."

These are big shoes to fill. Djindjic was a tireless proponent for democratic reforms throughout the 1990s, a cause for which he spent time in jail. He was one of the heroes of the October, 2000, ouster of Milosevic. Although never confirmed, it has been widely reported in Serbia that it was Djindjic, as head of the Democratic Party, who, in secret talks, convinced police and special military units not to crack down on anti-Milosevic demonstrators.

In January, 2001, his Democratic Party led a coalition that won a majority in Serbia's parliament, and he was named Prime Minister. Djindjic packed his government with young and able reformers. In stops and starts, they have dragged Serbia back into favor with the West and began building a foundation for economic development. His government liberalized prices, reformed and restructured state finances, renegotiated crippling debts with international financial institutions, started cleaning up banks, and launched an aggressive privatization program.

FATAL CRACKDOWNS. Foreign investment hasn't exactly poured in -- though that may be largely due to the international economic climate. Still, some multinationals have taken the leap. France's LaFarge bought Serbia's largest cement factories. In January, the U.S. packaging company Ball Corp. announced it would build a new $80 million plant here. Wednesday's shocking assassination, however, will likely spook potential investors.

Other reforms proved more explosive -- and may have cost Djindjic his life. One was his crackdown on the Serbian mob. Only days ago, on Mar. 6, his government appointed a special prosecutor with wide powers for investigating organized crime.

Equally dangerous, Djindjic had recently signaled he would hunt down several more Serbs charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He had already shipped off Milosevic to face the tribunal but had been under intense pressure from the U.S. to make additional arrests. In fact, Washington tied cooperation with The Hague to continued U.S. financial support for Serbia. Either crackdown may have led to the assassination.

The leaderless Serbian government now faces a crucial challenge. Having dominated his party and his administration with his personality, political skills, and sheer energy, Djindjic left no clear deputy. It remains to be seen if a new leader will emerge to drive reforms forward. Both Serbs and

foreigners badly need assurance that they can believe in this new country. Only hours after Djindjic's tragic death, they're waiting for someone to step forward. By Christopher Condon in Belgrade

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