Riddle of a murdered minister

By south-east Europe analyst Gabriel Partos

Tuesday, 8 February, 2000

The assassination of Yugoslav Defence Minister Pavle Bulatovic is the latest in a series of murders amongst the Belgrade establishment.

At least 15 prominent members of Belgrade's elite have been gunned down since the early 1990s - a pattern that was repeated as recently as three weeks ago when the notorious paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, died in a hail of bullets in a hotel lobby.

Although Arkan's alleged killers have been detained by police, so far there has been no explanation as to their motives. The mystery is even deeper in the case of the other murders which have all remained unsolved.

Serbian opposition politician Dusan Spasojevic said: "All the killings in the last 10 years could be connected, in the sense that the killer was never found.

"We still do not know who killed the minister of police three and a half years ago, or who killed Arkan, so I think the fact that connects these killings is that the killer will never be found."

But the most frequently-mentioned reasons for the murders are financial and political - and these apply also in the case of Mr Bulatovic.

'Closed world'

The Serbian elite created by President Slobodan Milosevic at the beginning of the early 1990s is a closed world in which many politicians, the security apparatus, financiers and leading underworld figures operate side-by-side.

The wars in former Yugoslavia and the international sanctions imposed on Belgrade have generated many opportunities for plunder, smuggling and large-scale illegal currency dealing.

And none of these activities could be carried out without the tacit approval - if not outright involvement - of the security forces which are ultimately answerable to President Milosevic.

As minister of defence, and previously minister of the interior, Pavle Bulatovic was involved since the start of the Bosnia war in 1992 in planning or carrying out some of the most sensitive aspects of Belgrade's policies. This could have led to rivalry with other senior figures or to disagreements over financial matters.

Indeed, one of Mr Bulatovic's companions in the restaurant where he was shot was Vuk Obradovic, the head of the Yu-Garant bank - previously the military branch of Yugoslavia's national bank - which has been responsible for processing much of Yugoslavia's military budget.

One possibility is that Mr Obradovic, who was slightly injured in the shoot-out, may have been the intended target.

But that is unlikely, given the professionalism of the hit-men who have carried out this and previous murders.

Motives for murder

An alternative explanation for Mr Bulatovic's assassination is that he simply knew too much about a whole range of criminal activities at the top - whether involving ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo or financial misconduct in Belgrade. Whether that in itself would have been enough to mark him out as a target, is open doubt. But in Serbia too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Some Serbian officials have come up with a different theory for the killing, putting the blame on the now disbanded ethnic Albanian guerrilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Serbia's deputy Minister of Information, Miodrag Popovic, said: "The way Mr Bulatovic was killed - everything points to a terrorist attack. We do know that people from the KLA already assassinated everyone who was against their political stance and their separatist fight in Kosovo and Metohija.

"They killed all their political opponents in the province, and maybe some KLA people did this."

But the KLA connection seems highly implausible. The KLA has not been known to operate in Serbia proper and ethnic Albanians in Belgrade are under close watch. And all the signs indicate that Mr Bulatovic's killing was meticulously planned by people with inside knowledge of his movements. This would almost certainly not have been available to the KLA.

Finally, there has been speculation about the Montenegrin factor since Mr Bulatovic was a Montenegrin supporter of President Milosevic who, in turn, has been increasingly at odds with Montenegro's independent-minded leadership over the past three years.

But in the current situation of tense relations between the two republics, the last thing any Montenegrin would want is to provoke Serbia, which is a much more powerful republic.

Following Mr Bulatovic's death there are many questions - and few answers. In a society where arguments are settled by the bullet the only certainty is that there are almost bound to be more high-level killings.

Original article