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INFO   :::  Projects > Archives > Promoting a Social Climate Propitious to Transitional... > Helsinki Charter No. 167-168 > Text



Mafia and the State


By Zoran Janic

Nebojsa Covic’s name has been popping up every now and then over years – either in the context of allegations of crime and plunder, under-the-counter dealings or complicity in Zoran Djindjic’s assassination. This was the case not long ago when an episode of the TV B92 series “Patriotic Plunder” reported colossal misconduct that had literally swallowed billions of tax-payers’ Euros meant as assistance to Kosovo Serbs at the time Covic was in charge of distribution of these moneys. What marks all these affairs is that Covic’s name is regularly connected not only with the names of some disputable businessmen and high-ranking officials of the State Security, but also hit men and criminals – hardly a public servant’s acquaintances, let alone business associates. Indicatively and as a rule, these affairs are being hushed up although all the traces lead toward a “para-state” criminal zone with apparent tentacles of the octopus the Italians call “La Piovra,” meaning the mafia.

Covic’s name does not pop up by chance only: just a brief overview of some of the latest affairs placing him in the public eye testifies of his connections with “The Octopus.” So, for instance, in the summer of 2011 the media broke the news that Milos Simovic of the Zemun Clan had given the Special Prosecution the names of high governmental officials supporting Zoran Djindjic’s assassins. Nebojsa Covic was on the top of this list. Then, when it came to the investigation in the “Agrobanka” affair this October the media reported that Covic’s company, “FMP,” had taken a 25-million-Euro loan from the said bank. Covic confirmed the information about the loan but denied the amount. Finally, Covic appeared in the “Insider” show, trying to answer some embarrassing questions about the way his Coordination Center had spent the money from the budget for Kosovo. He claimed he was innocent, worked by the book and that nothing had been disputable in this matter. However, only the day later when papers run the breaking news about his upcoming arrest, he turned up at TV Pink, all out of breath (despite some problems he had with his neck bones and should have rested as advised by his doctors) to tell the anchor the story he had learned by heart: he said he knew everything about the plunder, who was stealing and when, he claimed the had informed about it the government, argued that the actual thieves wanted him arrested now, and so on and so on. Vice-Premier Aleksandar Vucic responded immediately saying that “the arrest of Nebojsa Covic was not on the agenda.”

What frightened Vucic so much that he gave the statement actually confirming that Covic was untouchable? Who’s the person that is untouchable to the law and who stands behind him? Who’s the man the media under the control of Democratic Party accuse of complicity in the party leader’s assassination but who is shortly after, with the helping hand from the presidential candidate from the same party, appointed the chairman of management board of the Red Star basketball club – an act that practically put an end to the story of his complicity in the murder? Who’s the man who had officially left politics and only a couple of years later got a 25-million-Euro loan from a state-run bank, which he never paid back, while the new regime is arresting people who owe 5,000 Euros? Who’s the man who had been the director of a state-run enterprise at the time people were paid salaries of 10-20 German marks but who had managed to buy off the same tens-of-million-Euro-worth enterprise out of his own pocket and no one questioned his about it?

Before trying to answer these questions let’s take a look at the past, more precisely at March 12, 2003, the day of Premier Djindjic’s assassination.


West and Zemun Clan

On that very day and only a couple of hours after the assassination, British Ambassador Charles Crawford and US Ambassador William Montgomery initiated a meeting with Serbian governmental officials to discuss the new, dramatic circumstances. The beheaded Serbian government badly needed the assistance of the West in those moments. But things these officials learned from Western diplomats at the meeting could hardly be labeled welcome and well-intentioned: namely, as it turned out, the British and the Americans wanted to see Nebojsa Covic as the new premier! Their choice was strange the more so since we know now that heads of the Zemun Clan (Spasojevic, Legija et al.) had the same in mind. What they also had in mind was a concentration government with Nebojsa Covic at its helm. So, let’s return to the question posed above: who’s, after all, that politician who so ideally combines diplomatic aspirations of the West and criminal plans of the Zemun Clan?


A Brief Political Biography

Formerly a member of the communist nomenklatura and then Milosevic’s protégé, Covic’s career rocketed in wartime from a member of the City Council to the Mayor of Belgrade and member of the Executive Board of the Socialist Party of Serbia /SPS/. He was the head of the December 1992 election campaign in Belgrade that will be remembered by the slogan “We are all Socialists this way or another.” He was at the peak of his power at the time: seen as the “second best” and Milosevic’s heir. However, he walked out of SPS later on and founded his own political party, Democratic Alternative /DA/. After the change of the regime in 2000 he became the Vice-Premier and the Head of the Coordination Center for Kosovo and Metohija. For Srpska Rec magazine, Covic is “a unique phenomenon at the Serbian political scene” being a “turncoat who had been in highest offices of as many as three regimes.” Reporters of Danas daily perceive Covic as “a political technocrat freed of ideological dogmas, Serbia is chronically short of.” As for a columnist for Vreme weekly, Covic mostly resembles Djilas in the positive sense by “the manner in which he deals in politics…and connects business with politics.” As the man in charge and one of major actors of the so-called pacification of the crisis in South Serbia in Djidjic’s cabinet in 2001, Covic was assigned a similar post by the cabinet of Vojislav Kostunica in 2005. When his presidential candidacy in 2004 failed, Covic began to move gradually toward political margins: in 2010 he closed down his party, withdrew from political life and completely turned to management of his “FMP” company and, as of last year, to chairmanship of the Red Star basketball club.


History Repeats Itself

The same as in May 2003 he complained to the media that his enemies in the government were preparing his arrest in the Saber operation staged in the aftermath of Premier Djindjic’s assassination, now, after initial episodes of the “Insider” show at TV B92 he complains of being “framed.” He even speaks of a possible date for his arrest. The same as in May 2003, the general public is being consequently alarmed that some innocent people may be arrested for political reasons. In the aftermath of Zoran Djindjic’s assassination such statements were coming from exactly the same people whose names were, later on, referred to in the charge pressed by lawyer Srdja Popovic and the Djindjic family: Vojislav Kostunica, Velimir Ilic and, like today, Nebojsa Covic. There are clear indications of Covic’s involvement in the assassination of Zoran Djindjic. However, the court simply refused to consider the. Though this is a common knowledge, let’s take a look at these indications once again:

1) In November 2006, Dejan /Bugsy/ Milenkovic, the fourth cooperating witness in the trial for the Djindjic assassination, told the Special Court that Vojislav Seselj, leader of Serb Radical Party, and Nebojsa Covic, former vice-premier, had been informed about the plan. “Ulemek /Legija/ told Dusan /Spasojevic/ that Covic supported them and to try to win over Seselj as well. This is what Dusan told Milos Simovic and me sometime on February 1-10, 2003 in the apartment in the Vojvoda Stepa Street,” said Bugsy.

2) The statement fugitive Milos Simovic gave to the Prosecution for Organized Crime when arrested in the summer of 2011 only confirms Bugsy’s testimony. The murder was ordered by “Coki,” as they nicknamed Covic. “He /Legija/ blotted the Premier’s picture in the papers. He said Coki asked him to do this at a meeting…He called his the Blind Man /Covic wears glasses/ but wrote down his full name by the picture,” said Simovic. To this Covic responded in the media saying, “If that’s really what lawyer Srdja Popovic claims, he surely must have ordered Milos Simovic to give such a statement.”

3) In May 2005, Goran Petrovic, former head of the Department of State Security, testified in the case of Djindjic assassination that Dragoljub Micunovic and Nebojsa Covic silently supported the protest of the Red Berets in November 2001. “They were not actually shaking their hands and hugging them on the bridge /blocked for the purpose/ but were expressing their support through Goran /Guri/ Radosavljavic /commander of the Gendarmerie/ and so as to remain anonymous,” said Petrovic.

4) Over the same trial, Zoran Mijatovic, another former head of the Department of State Security /who had commanded the operation for the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic/ testified that Covic had taken “Legija with him to South Serbia claiming he needed him over there” even though Milorad /Legija/ Lukovic had already been suspended from the police as the main suspect of Djindjic’s assassination.

5) In his testimony before the Special Court, Vladimir Popovic said, “Politicians who were in touch with the Unit for Special Operations at the time are well-known. Some of them were in DOS /Democratic Opposition of Serbia/ such as Dragoljub Micunovic and Nebojsa Covic.”

6) In his memoirs “My Conflict with the Past,” Cedomir Jovanovic, leader of Liberal Democratic Party and former vice-premier, speaks of the beginning of the Saber operation. “Nebojsa Covic asked me to meet him in the City Hall. He looked tense and nervous, but somehow differently from the others present at the moment. I told him I could meet with him only in the afternoon. We met the next morning. He was sitting in a big office that made him look smaller. As if he wanted to compensate his low stature with square meters. He went straight to the point. ‘Are you going to arrest me?” he asked. There was no need for him to explain his question. I knew he did not refer to the fact that back in 2001 his name popped up in the police investigation into organized crime. On the eve of the assassination when preparations for the arrest of Legija and the Zemun Clan were almost over, Covic had contacts with them we knew nothing about except that they were frequent. I replied with a question myself, ‘And why are you asking me this?’.”

7) At the time the Saber operation was in full swing, Velimir Ilic, leader of New Serbia, sent a message to Police Minister Mihajlovic through Ljubodrag Grbic, MP, saying that he feared his family was in danger. According to him, in late February (two weeks before the assassination) three Legija’s men showed at his doorstep with a letter from their commander (Legija was circulating this letter to other party leaders, politicians and ambassadors). The tone of the letter clearly indicated that Legija was after something dangerous. So Ilic turned to Nebojsa Covic who told him not to worry given that “he /Covic/ controls Legija and his people.” “Legija is my boy,” he said.

(Covic replied in the press, “Had Velja agreed to testify, they would try to arrest me in the Saber operation and then go after Kostunica too.”)


Seselj’s Testimony before ICTY

Seselj’s name was on the 37th place on the list of 45 persons the police and the District Prosecution charged with organizing the assassination of Zoran Djindjic. Seselj was questioned by the end of the investigation, on August 4-5, in the ICTY detention unit in Scheveningen. Two weeks later, Special Prosecutor Jovan Prijic completed the indictment – but Seselj’s name was not in it.

Asked about the accomplices in the escape of Zeljko /Maka/ Maksimovic, charged with murder of Police General Bosko Buha, Seselj said, “Zeljko /Maka/ Maksimovic was close to Covic and his circle, and was also connected with some other politicians. I’ve explained this in my book Nebojsa Covic, the Mafia Puddle. On some 300-odd pages I told all I knew about Covic’s mafia affairs and his hookup with this mafia clan.” When an investigator asked him, “Is it true that Nebojsa Covic talked to Zeljko Skrba to liquidate you?” Seselj replied, “Yes, it is, and the police have tape-recorded everything. I think this is why Skrba was executed – to cover up the traces. The police have recorded that Skrba had suggested by execution to Covic and that Covic told him to wait for a while, ‘the time was not ripe yet.’.”

In November 2002, Seselj accused Covic of helping Misa Omega /Milomir Joksimovic/ and “his pals from Surcin to win the tender for asphalting the roads in South Serbia.”


Covic’s Ties with the Mafia Part of “The Octopus”

A research conducted by the Civilian Institute for Democracy and Security confirms Seselj’s allegations about Covic’s ties with mafia. “Zeljko /Maka/ Maksimovic was in touch with Skrba, a criminal from Serb Sarajevo. Whenever in Belgrade, Skrba went to FMP, Covic’s company. He was in daily touch with Baja Zivanovic, called The Blue, from the Cukarica neighborhood, a criminal close to Arkan, who was Covic’s business associate,” quotes the report. “Beside Andrija Draskovic, The Blue, was the only one left alive and at large after the Arkan killing affair, and he was Covic’s best friend at the same time. Just before October 5 The Blue sent Maka to watch over Covic, especially after the abduction of Milija Babovic.”


Covic’s Malversations

Covic’s entire career as a businessman is marked by plunder, malversation and all sorts of under-the-counter dealings and suspicious transactions he had never been called to account for. Several times when he neared the dangerous edge there was always someone or something to save his neck at the eleventh hour: a tentacle of the octopus that would pull out at a danger signal. Except for unusual indifference of the media to dig deeper into the above-mentioned question – how was it possible at all for Covic to take over the state-run “Proleter” company and turn it into his private “FMP Trade?” – the papers run a series of stories about his suspicious and illegal dealings.

At the time the former YPA was fighting in the Vukovar area, Covic, as an outstanding SPS official, transported the machinery of the Vukovar tin can factory to his factory in Zeleznik. Apart from these machines, tens of oil tanks from the Vukovar battlefield ended up in the yard of his factory (“For our Serb brothers, would they need them,” he used to explain to his workers).

Thanks to his close ties with the then President Slobodan Milosevic, Covic signed contracts with the Army of Yugoslavia /VJ/ according to which he was charging the Army five times the actual price of white tine per ton in the period of three years. It was only years later that the Army inspection decided that his company had thus caused a three-million-dollar loss to their budget (besides, because of poor quality of tin cans produced by his “FMP,” 700 tons of canned food from war reserves had to be destroyed).

The very fact that despite having largely damaged the military budget Covic won in the next tender the Army called in 1999 because Milosevic himself intervened on his behalf – moreover, demanding the Army to directly deal with Covic’s company – is a circumstantial evidence of his affiliation with “The Octopus.” Given that all this happened after Covic’s expulsion from SPS it is obvious that “The Octopus” had some other plans for him, including the possibility of October 5. And, indeed, Covic’s party was represented in the new, democratic government – and, indeed, as a tentacle of “The Octopus.” (This is exactly why a court of law should carefully examine – chronologically and genealogically – Covic’s connections. So far the general public could have only guessed at bosses of the “Octopus” – Branko Krga, Jovica Stanisic, Borislav Milosevic, etc. Given that in the Covic case the evidence is at hand, investigators could easily learn the names of the rest; it is high time to take the wraps off this structure.).

In the same period and in his capacity as the president of the City Council Covic took a 200,000-German mark loan from the infamous banker Jezdimir Vasiljevic and his “Jugoskandik.” When the scandal with the bank broke he promised to return the moneys to voters but never did. In the Zeleznik settlement of the Cukarica municipality Covic build a sports hall from the city budget – the sports hall that was later on appropriated by his “FMP Zeleznik” basketball club.


Kosovo: A Closed Circle

In 2003 in his capacity as vice-premier of the transitional government and coordinator of the governmental commission for settlement of the situation in municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, Covic crossed swords with Momcilo Trajkovic, president of the Committee for Kosovo and Metohija. At the meeting of the Committee Trajkovic demanded a discussion on financial dealings of the Coordination Center (“That was the first through analysis of the Coordination Center’s performance since its establishment,” he said later on). In turn, Covic demanded that Trajkovic should be deposed. Through the media Trajkovic insisted on the Center’s financial report, accusing Covic of financial arbitrariness and even of buying apartments to some people from the Center’s budget.

So Covic turned to Premier Zivkovic asking him not to place the financial report of the Coordination Center on parliamentary agenda. When Zivkovic turned him down, Covic withdrew his MPs (including Nada Kolundzija, his time-tested associate). Since this happened at the time when Kori Udovicki of DS was appointed the Governor of the Central Bank, DOS had insufficient number of MPs, all of which culminated in the so-called Bodrum scandal that would trigger off the collapse of the Zivkovic cabinet.


Schizoid Public Opinion

Despite undisputable evidence and clear indications of Covic’s involvement in the plan for Premier Djindjic’s assassination, contrary to common sense and regardless of the charges pressed by the Djindjic family and the fact that they are duty-bound to enforce the law, state institutions have been behaving as if everything was in perfect order. It never occurred either to Prosecutor Miljko Radosavljevic or the ruling Democratic Party /DS/ to summon Covic for investigation. Instead they were sending him invitations of sorts through Blic and Press dailies (as in the case of Vojislav Kostunica). State institutions were conspicuously silent about initial and revised criminal charges pressed by lawyer Popovic, while Covic was obviously under the wing of some circles in DS (Djilas and other high officials in the management of the Red Star club). The rest – Boris Tadic and Miki Rakic, head of his office – claimed they had prepared the terrain for Covic’s arrest but had to wait till the elections were over before arresting him (and since they lost the elections everything went down the drain). At the same time, Nada Kolundzija, Covic’s right-hand woman from DA and then the spokeswoman for DS, claimed she was after “having all the facts about Djindjic’s murder revealed.” It was only logical, however, that she would do everything to protect her chief and mentor.

All these unnatural ties – between the mafia and the state, the media and security services – literally keep the public opinion in Serbia in a schizoid state. The power of the state that controls the public space is not manifested in brutal force but in an all-inclusive control, which taboos the causes and relativizes the consequences: therefore, though kept posted about everything and all and sundry, citizens actually expect instructions from some higher level that will decide what’s true and what’s not.

And what was true yesterday needs not be true today. So induced schizophrenia locks society in the state of permanently divided consciousness – the state in which everyone knows everything but actually knows nothing. This is why, for instance, we still do not know who killed soldiers in the Topcider barracks (although we know), how come that documents on bombardment of RTS are not available at the Ministry of Defense (although we know they are), who murdered journalists Slavko Curuvija and Dada Vujasinovic (although the rumor has it the contrary), or did Justice Simeunovic kill himself or was killed (although we know that he was killed by security services). This is why no one touches on the counter-intelligence service /KOS/ and the military-security agency /VBA/ and this is why no one from the state security agency /DB/ has not been called to account yet.

In the badly organized state with metastasized relicts of Stalinist control of the society, the public opinion reasonably perceives Aleksandar Vucic, vice-premier and coordinator of security services, as the pivot of social power. He has a unique opportunity to do things no one has done before – of course, should he dare open the cases of Beko, Miskovic, Peconi, Lazarevic, Hamovic et al., confront the biggest gang of drug dealers in Europe that lives and works in peace in Jagodina, and should he manage to break hookups between security services (hit men and their financiers) and tear apart this huge octopus of death, which chokes Serbia and has Covic a major tentacle. Serbia is a very sick society, a society at its deathbed: the question is whether a chronically sick organ such as Vucic’s Serb Progressive Party /SNS/ could heal in any way an even sicker organism. By medical statistics this is possible – but only minimally or as an exception to the rule.



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