You couldn't make this up: Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic recently acknowledged meeting an accused drug smuggler nicknamed Misha Banana, but said that he had no idea the man was a criminal suspect because the police had failed to tell him.
A few days before that admission, Dacic was the object of a fake TV interview that aired on "Mission Impossible," the Serbian equivalent of "Candid Camera," in which the interviewer flashed her private parts at him on camera. The prime minister's smile, as she imitated Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct," has been viewed on YouTube 9 million times -- more than the sum of Serbia's population.
Dacic has ordered an investigation into the show. Now he says the police have told him that a mafia gang wants to kill him by crashing his government plane.
Dacic's troubles are piling up to such an extent that they threaten the survival of Serbia's coalition government, as well as talks with the former Serbian province of Kosovo, which promise to draw the poison from a major piece of unfinished business from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The Banana allegations are damaging, but there is no evidence anything unlawful happened. Dacic admits to meeting Rodoljub "Misha" Radulovic, aka Misha Banana, on two occasions in 2008 and 2009, and denies any wrongdoing. He says leaks about the meetings are part of a campaign to destroy him politically.
Radulovic got his nickname because he once had a banana-importing business, although at the time he was better known as Misha the American, a reference to years he spent living in the U.S. By the time he returned to Serbia, he was under a fraud investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and was being chased for $12.1 million in a Florida court by a unit of Russia's OAO Lukoil.
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes investigative reporting, published documents last year on Radulovic's alleged involvement in a 2009 attempt to smuggle cocaine from Latin America to Europe by ship. The documents came from security agencies in five countries, including the U.K.'s Serious Organised Crime Agency.
More recently, the project published an indictment that Serbian prosecutors issued last October against Radulovic, Darko Saric and 11 others. The indictment alleges that Radulovic owned ships in which drugs were smuggled, hidden among legitimate cargo.
The Saric gang laundered at least 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) from 2006 to 2010 by buying companies and property in Serbia, according to the reporting project's Stevan Dojcinovic. The party ended in October 2009, when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, working with U.K., Serbian and Latin American agencies, seized 2 tons of cocaine from a motor yacht moored off the coast of Uruguay, in a joint operation called Balkan Warrior. A number of gang members were arrested. Saric fled and remains wanted.
One aspect of the Dacic story gripping Serbia's news media is the question of who is leaking the information about his meetings with Misha Banana, and why. On Feb. 4, the newspaper Blic reported that Radulovic gave BlackBerry smartphones to Dacic and one of his aides. After handing them over, Radulovic called Saric to say that the “gifts have been given,” Blic reported. Radulovic disappeared after the indictment and could not be reached for comment for this story. Dacic denies receiving a BlackBerry from Saric.
Dacic is a Balkan survivor. During the Yugoslav wars, he was the spokesman for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Dacic went on to lead Milosevic's political party, the Socialist Party of Serbia, a post he still holds. In the previous administration, he was interior minister. He retains that job in the current government, while also becoming prime minister.
In addition to allegations that Dacic met Misha Banana, the reporting project said this month that the prime minister's national-security adviser, Ivica Toncev, once sold a Vienna-based company to another mafia boss, Branislav Saranovic, after which Toncev continued to run the company for its new owner. It isn't clear what the company did and without addressing the specifics of the allegations, Toncev has said they are untrue. Saranovic was assassinated in a hail of machine-gun fire outside his Belgrade home in October 2009.
Belgrade is now rife with speculation about how these and other incidents and characters may be linked, and whether men connected to the Saric gang either fled or were killed as a result of leaks from the Serbian police while Dacic was interior minister.
Dacic says it is untrue that he met Radulovic in the knowledge that he was a suspected drug runner, adding that the man known as Misha Banana wasn't listed as part of the Balkan Warrior investigation at the time -- that came later. In support of the security-service incompetence that this omission would require, he notes that they also failed to warn him that the TV interview he agreed to do was a spoof.
On Feb. 7, Dacic was in the U.S., where he met officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The meeting wouldn't have taken place unless he was clean, the prime minister says. Separately, he has said that while he was on a Feb. 14 visit to Ireland, the police and Serbian intelligence warned him that a mafia gang was seeking to bring down his aircraft on the way back, suggesting he is an enemy of the Serbian mob, not its accomplice.
How long the government can survive has become an open question. On Feb. 17, Dacic answered by saying that “an election will be held when the governing coalition decides so.” The issue is how long Dacic’s main coalition partner, the Serbian Progressive Party, wants to carry on.
The party is led by Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who controls the intelligence services and has a difficult relationship with Dacic. Even so, on Feb. 4, Vucic said there would be no elections for now.
Vucic is probably holding fire due to pressure from the European Union and the U.S. Dacic is in the middle of negotiating an EU-sponsored agreement with the government of Kosovo, whose ethnic Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbian leaders say they will never recognize Kosovo's secession, but an agreement on everything short of that is now being hammered out. The U.S. and the EU want Serbia's government to remain until this potentially historic deal is reached.
In the meantime, even though no evidence links Dacic to any wrongdoing, the prime minister’s political credibility is leaking away as fast as the news media is fed more stories about Misha Banana.
(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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