Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a key leader of the revolt that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic, was assassinated in Belgrade Wednesday, throwing the country into a fresh political crisis amid bitter complaints about the power wielded by criminal overlords.
Mr. Djindjic, an enthusastically pro-Western leader, was shot dead as he entered government headquarters. Police said they had arrested two men in connection with the killing, but they were not sure they were the gunmen.
The future of democratic reforms was uncertain following the prime minister's death.
Speculation was rife as to who was behind the murder, but political leaders and observers said that shadowy mafia groups linked to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime were most likely responsible.
The killing was "a warning to look ourselves in the eye and ask how much crime has permeated all the pores of society," former president Vojislav Kostunica told B-92 radio.
"We all knew this was a disorganized country with a well organized mafia, but this is too much" said Nenad Stefanovic, a political analyst with the news weekly Vreme.
Djindjic had made many powerful enemies in Serbia. He pushed free-market economic reform, and cooperated with the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is currently trying Mr. Milosevic for war crimes and has indicted a number of other leading Serb politicians.
He recently promised that he would try to arrest Gen. Ratko Mladic, wanted by the tribunal for war crimes in Bosnia, who is believed to be hiding in Serbia.
Some of Djindjic's political opponents have suggested that the prime minister made a deal with senior Milosevic-era security officials, promising to leave them alone if they did not block the opposition's effort to overthrow Milosevic himself.
"It could be that some of them felt betrayed by Djindjic," Mr. Stefanovic suggested.
The silver-haired prime minister, nicknamed "the manager" for his efficiency (and "little Slobo" for authoritarian tendencies that reminded his critics of Mr. Milosevic), had emerged in recent months as the undisputed leader of Serbia after a long tussle with other former opposition leaders, primarily Mr. Kostunica.
Djindjic was born in 1952, into the family of a Yugoslav army officer in a town near the Bosnian border.
Smart, charismatic, and pragmatic, but with a ruthless streak, Djindjic came to prominence when he returned from philosophy studies in Germany to found the Democratic party in opposition to Milosevic.
His death leaves a power vacuum at the head of a country already struggling with difficulties on many fronts.
Serbia became part of a new country only weeks ago, when it formed an uneasy confederation with neighboring independence-minded Montenegro.
The status of Kosovo - formally still part of Serbia but under international protectorate - has not yet been resolved, and repeated presidential elections have failed to choose a Serbian president for lack of sufficient turnout.
Serbia still lives under the Milosevic-era constitution, since political parties have failed to agree on a new one.
Economic reforms, which are essential to ensure continued Western aid and to revive a crumbling infrastructure, have bogged down in recent months, hampered by vicious infighting among the leaders of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), which spearheaded the movement to bring down Milosevic.
Djindjic had struggled to maintain a parliamentary majority, and new elections seem likely soon in a bid to form a stable government.
Judging by the results of recent presidential elections, such a parliamentary poll could return anti-Djindjic nationalist forces to power.
"That would mean Milosevic's ghost coming back to haunt Serbia, because it was never properly exorcised for fear of a backlash" said James Lyon, head of the Belgrade office of the International Crisis Group, a foreign policy think tank.
If criminal gangs linked to the former regime are found to be responsible for the prime minister's death, however, voters could react against them, suggested Predrag Simic, a top adviser to former president Kostunica who now runs Serbia's Diplomatic Academy.
"This event will have a shock impact," he argued. "People might vote against the nationalists out of compassion, frustration and anger."
Djindjic was the victim of an apparent assassination attempt last month, when a truck suddenly swerved into the path of his motorcade on the road to Belgrade airport. The truck driver was released for lack of evidence, despite the revelation that he was tied to a powerful Serbian criminal organization.
"If somebody thinks that the law and reforms can be stopped by eliminating me, that is a huge delusion," Djindjic told the daily Politika at the time.
The effort toward political and economic reform, however, may be stymied by Djindjic's death.
"The real power structures in Serbia are not elected, but are the parallel structures that Milosevic created based on the security and intelligence services", said Mr. Lyon.
Those organizations, which funded themselves and the Yugoslav state by smuggling drugs, tobacco, alcohol and women, have never been dismantled, Serbs complain, and wield enormous influence behind the scenes.
"A lot of former paramilitary types now run businesses and they are very well connected with the police", said Stefanovic. "These are relationships that have not been broken since October 5th ," when Milosevic stepped down in the face of a popular uprising.
"We need a new government and a consensus around a new constitution," Stefanovic added."We need to rebuild the state from its foundations, or we will not get out of this crisis."