Serbia's Secretive Power Broker
October 08, 2003
By Russ Baker
his many critics, Vladimir Popovic, a shadowy influence-broker in
the Serbian government, epitomizes the forces holding back the
emergence of true democracy in the Balkans. While serving as chief
of the government’s communications operations for much of the past
three years, he has shown a ferocious instinct for suppressing
public criticism of government officials while maintaining close
links with oligarchs who are accused of excessive influence in that
of Popovic is a test of the democratic culture in Serbia and its
institutions,” said Djordje Vukadinovic, a University of Belgrade
researcher and editor of the quarterly, New Serbian Political
Popovic, known by the nickname “Beba” (Baby) because of his youthful
features, serves as a fundraising link to super-rich Serbians who
rose to great influence under the dictator Slobodan Milosevic during
the past decade and now dominate banking, telecommunications, media,
agriculture and other industries.
According to a
former friend, Popovic himself was plucked from the coat check at a
riverfront restaurant in his youth by a powerful ad-pr man and
within a few years owned what is now the local branch of the global
agency, Ogilvy & Mather. Popovic handled publicity for the
then-opposition Democratic Party, and became a key go-between with
some of the men who were rapidly building business empires. When
Zoran Djindjic was elected prime minister following Milosevic’s
ouster in 2000, Popovic was named to head the government’s Bureau of
There he earned
the moniker “spin doctor” for his efforts to suppress criticism.
Prominent journalists publicly accused him of placing angry and
profane phone calls to criticize unfavorable coverage, and
confronting government critics with personal information about them
that could only have come from government security files.
grew, Popovic abruptly vanished from his “official” position last
fall --although given his contention that he never drew a salary, no
one could say for certain that he had actually disengaged from his
behind-the-scenes roles as government bagman and “fixer.”
In March 2002,
within hours of Djindjic’s assassination by a cabal believed to
include mobsters and Milosevic-remnant security service members,
Popovic re-emerged, this time in a far more visible mode – as the
primary spokesperson for the government.
“During the state of emergency, he
was de facto running not just the press office but the government,
from the shadows,” said Vukadinovic
Popovic used his daily press
briefings for personal attacks on political opponents, sometimes
implying links with those behind the assassination. Soon, members
of the media, barred from questioning other aspects of the state of
emergency, began asking exactly under what authority Popovic
He responded by
filing personal lawsuits against critics in and out of the media,
the television and radio broadcaster that played a key role in
opposing Milosevic. He even
sued people who simply criticized his lawsuits.
Popovic also coordinated moves to
suppress dissent through legislation. And the party of former
President Vojislav Kostunica accused him of authorizing illegal
surveillance of its offices. According to a July report by the
Brussels-based NGO, the International Crisis Group, “EU diplomats
and DOS [ruling coalition] officials have told ICG that a new
intelligence service has been established inside the Serbian
Premier’s cabinet under the [co-] direction of ‘Beba’ Popovic.”
Popovic had antagonized almost the entire press corps and foreign
diplomatic community, and it was announced that he was once again
leaving the government.
person who could produce [such] solidarity…was Beba Popovic,” says
B92’s general manager, Sasa Mirkovic. “He’s one of the most hated
people in town.”
years, Popovic has remained remarkably elusive for a publicity man.
He has granted only one interview – to state television, in which he
admitted to personal volatility while denying anything more serious.
He did not respond to three interview requests from this reporter.
they’ve seen him recently with government bodyguards, and he’s
widely believed to remain one of a handful of most powerful
Democratic party figures, a ‘power behind the throne,’ both for his
fundraising prowess and because of the importance of propaganda work
as the party faces daily scandals, declining popularity and a risk
of losing its parliamentary working majority.
continues to play a major role through an estimated
two dozen legal actions he’s
launched, which would amount to ten percent of all lawsuits filed
against journalists in the past three years. Critics say the
suits, and the government’s
unwillingness to stop them, are symptomatic of a lack of
understanding of appropriate venues for disagreement. According to
Slobodan Kremenjak, B92’s attorney, “He came to court with a massive
folder labeled ‘B92’, and said he had hundreds of examples of what
he described as attacks against him – which even the judge said was
irrelevant to the case.”
some basis for Popovic’s thin skin, as even his critics admit. “A
lot of our journalists don’t understand the concept of
responsibility,” said Ljiljana Breberina, project manager for
Belgrade’s Media Center, which trains journalists. Articles based on
minimal sourcing or mere rumor are still common, and the press here
rushes to report each in a constant barrage of political
name-calling, while making little effort to corroborate accusations.
Significantly, though, many of the journalists who drew Popovic’s
ire are among those considered to be most professional and serious.
most of whom declined to be named, said it’s not surprising that in
this climate, journalistic self-censorship has grown in the past few
months – yet another blow to the prospects for truly open public
debate and government transparency in this fragile democracy.