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Serbia's Secretive Power Broker
October 08, 2003

By Russ Baker

BELGRADE--To 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 government. 

“The phenomenon 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 Thought

The 44-year-old 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 Communication.  

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.  

As complaints 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 operated.  

He responded by filing personal lawsuits against critics in and out of the media, including B92, 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.”   

By July, Popovic had antagonized almost the entire press corps and foreign diplomatic community, and it was announced that he was once again leaving the government.  

 “The only 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.”  

Throughout the 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.   

Sources say 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.  

Popovic also 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.”  

There’s likely 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.  

Media figures, 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.