The XX Committee

The Legacy of “Black Actions”

This weekend was supposed to be one big party in Croatia, as the country gears up to enter the European Union on July 1st.  For many Croats, EU accession, four years after they made it into NATO, was slated to be the crowning achievement for the small country that had to fight its way out of Yugoslavia beginning in 1991, resulting a four-year war that left lasting scars across society. Getting into the EU signified for many Croats that they had “made it” into Europe.

But there’s not much celebrating in Croatia this weekend as the big event has been marred by dirty deeds committed by Croatian spies a generation ago, under Communism. Now Germany, Croatia’s old friend and biggest backer for EU accession, is having nothing to do with the festivities and a pall has appeared over what was supposed to be Zagreb’s coming-out as a truly European – i.e. not Balkan – country. Now foreigners are recalling all the ways that Croatia, burdened by deep political and economic troubles, above all epidemic corruption, might not be ready to join the EU club after all.

The cause of all this is UDBA, the feared secret police of Communist Yugoslavia. As this blog has noted previously, although Tito and his regime got good press in the West during the Cold War, principally because Yugoslavia’s odd position – Communist but not in the Soviet orbit – was politically and strategically expedient for NATO, in fact Tito’s secret police was every bit as nasty as the KGB, and in some ways even worse.

Despite what movies and spy novels tell you, after the 1950s the KGB became quite cautious about performing “wetwork” (as they called it, meaning assassinations and related dirty tricks) in the West. After a few embarrassingly botched operations against anti-Soviet emigres in West Germany, the KGB pretty much got out of the assassination game in the West. When the rather unpleasant Bulgarian secret police in 1978 wanted to silence the UK-based emigre Georgi Markov, leading to the infamous “umbrella murder,” the KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov ordered his spies to provide the Bulgarians with the murder weapon but otherwise to have nothing to do with the operation; Andropov feared the political costs associated with getting caught murdering emigres in the West.

Oddly, just as the KGB got out of this messy game, UDBA was getting into it, and Tito’s killers proved even more cunning and unpleasant than the Chekists at it. Beginning in the mid-1960s, UDBA waged a secret war against emigres abroad that, by the time it ran its course a couple decades later, succeeded in murdering nearly a hundred Yugoslavs in the West, most of them Croats. Many of the killings, which UDBA called “black actions” (crne akcije), were sensational, needlessly brutal, and some involved the murder of children, including in the United States.

But West Germany, with its large population of Balkan Gastarbeiter, was UDBA’s biggest killing ground, with more than two dozen assassinations happening on German soil. Although some of the victims were actual terrorists who were fighting to overthrow Tito’s Communist regime – a fantasy goal they never had any chance of pulling off – many had tangential ties to terrorism at best, and some were peaceful opponents of an oppressive regime. Yugoslavia had an expansive definition of “terrorism” and managed to lump all regime foes abroad, even the non-violent ones, in a criminal category known as the “enemy emigration,” that was a target for surveillance, manipulation, intimidation – and eventually assassination.

From a professional spy’s viewpoint, UDBA’s concept of wetwork was operationally brilliant, as I’ve noted before, but it soon developed an internal logic that meant killings became increasingly common through the 1970s. Much like drones are for the United States in its struggle against terrorism today, assassinations were the weapon of choice for Tito’s spies, and they got so good at it that they kept killing, and overuse became a serious problem. Soon UDBA was killing people who had nothing to do with terrorism, whose only crime was dissidence.

It needs to be stated that UDBA got away with its killing spree for so long in no small part because Western countries did little to stop it. Police and intelligence agencies in Europe and North America didn’t exactly suffer from overwork in their efforts to solve the dozens of assassinations perpetrated by Tito’s Murder Inc. This was partly because UDBA covered its tracks well most of the time, but it also had something to do with the fact that NATO countries didn’t want to cause serious political heartburn for Yugoslavia, which was a strategic partner of sorts in the Cold War. Every so often, usually following a brutal killing, a Western country would declare a couple UDBA operatives personae non gratae and expel them, foreign ministries would deliver a demarche to Belgrade, and things might calm down for a bit. Yet the killings always started again. In several Western countries, including the United States, cops and spooks who wanted to look closely into these unsolved murders got the impression that their investigative efforts were unwanted by their own governments.

Thus Tito’s spies enjoyed a useful double standard that was never enjoyed by Soviet Bloc intelligence services. UDBA was allowed to get away with assassinating emigres all over the West, suffering minimal consequences, even when the victims were naturalized citizens of Western countries, and even when the victims included innocent family members of the targeted “enemy emigre” – a very Balkan version of “collateral damage.” In a typical case, the Croatian dissident writer Bruno Busic was brutally murdered in Paris in 1978 in a trademark UDBA hit; there was a bit of press coverage but the police investigation never really went anywhere. Yet the aforementioned murder of Georgi Markov in London, which occurred within a few weeks of the Busic killing, became a global sensation and embarrassment for Bulgaria; British police never closed the case, and leads continue to be pursued today.

After Tito’s death in 1980, UDBA continued its killing spree. The murder machine was difficult to turn off, especially because it was considered a brilliant success by Yugoslav secret policemen. Perhaps the most infamous hit, not to mention the one that demonstrated just how out of control the “black program” had gotten, was the killing of Stjepan Djurekovic, which UDBA termed Operation Danube.  The middle-aged Djurekovic was far from a terrorist; in fact he had been a career Communist functionary, rising in the ranks of the nomenklatura, eventually becoming head of the Croatian state oil company. The corruption he saw there disgusted him, and he fled to West Germany in 1982, where he became active in dissident circles. His writings, which exposed the enormous fraudulence of the Titoist political-economic system, infuriated the Communist leadership.

Therefore the Yugoslav leadership decided to use its well honed weapon of choice against the troublesome Djurekovic, and he was brutally murdered by a team of hitmen in his garage in a suburb of Munich in late July 1983. Bavarian police were stunned by the ferocity of the killing, which detectives immediately assumed was the handwork of UDBA. There was little progress at first, but decades later, it would emerge that the assassination was approved at the highest level in Communist Croatia, and Operation Danube was planned and executed by the 2nd Department of UDBA in Zagreb, which dealt with “enemy emigration” issues.

The head of the 2nd Department then was Josip Perkovic, a career secret policeman who was involved in numerous “black actions” in the 1980s. Although UDBA assassinations tapered off in the last years of Yugoslavia, not least because most opponents were already dead, they did not cease altogether until 1990. Djurekovic’s son died in Canada in 1987 in what appeared to be a suicide, but many suspect that UDBA got to him too.

Not long after that, Communism fell. The transition to democracy and the rule of law, which has been challenging in all of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, has proved trickier in Croatia than almost anywhere. The newly independent country was born fighting for its freedom, which put a brake on any efforts to deal with the crimes of the Titoist system. Just as important, forward-looking secret policemen, who could see that the Communist system was failing fast, began planning for the future in the second half of the 1980s, ingratiating themselves with emerging post-Communist political elites.

One of them was Josip Perkovic, who quickly became a key player in the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which led Croatia out of Yugoslavia, and transformed himself into the right-hand man of President Franjo Tudjman on intelligence matters. By the time Tudjman died in 1999, enough time had passed that no one in Zagreb really wanted to deal with the messy matter of all those assassinations, which did not place the newly independent country in a positive light. Perkovic threatened the few journalists who wanted “black actions” discussed and investigated. As a result, UDBA crimes became a taboo topic in free Croatia, and there were never any real efforts at lustration.

Justice therefore has proved elusive, and Croatia’s few token, half-hearted efforts to bring UDBA killers into court got nowhere. Even the case of Bruno Busic could not be resolved, his killer being acquitted even though the prosecutors had UDBA files that described the operation to murder the dissident in detail, thus raising disturbing questions about UDBA’s continuing influence long after its supposed dissolution. It has been clear for over two decades that Croatia lacks the political will to confront the crimes of the old regime.

Germany, however, has felt differently. UDBA crimes there have been investigated with a Teutonic thoroughness that is impossible in Croatia, and although most cases cannot be prosecuted because key players are long dead – not surprisingly, UDBA hitmen tended to die prematurely themselves, and seldom in bed – and the Djurekovic killing has become a stand-in for all the victims of UDBA terror in Germany.

In 2008, a German court convicted Krunoslav Prates, one of the UDBA team that assassinated Djurekovic, and sentenced him to life in prison. Subsequently, German prosecutors sought warrants against the Communist officials behind the murder, including Josip Perkovic. Although he is now retired, Perkovic remains well connected in Zagreb power circles, as is his son Sasa, who is an intimate of the top leadership as well as the country’s national security advisor. Not surprisingly, Croatia has strongly resisted Germany’s efforts to get Perkovic in the dock for the 1983 murder, since the case does not portray the country in a very “European” light.

Croatian obstructionism – which has ranged from claiming not to know where the UDBA pensioner is, to assertions that Perkovic cannot be tried due to relevant Croatian laws – has been dismissed by Germany, which this week upped the ante by explaining that effective July 1st, the day Croatia joins the EU, a European-wide warrant will be in effect for Perkovic on murder charges. Germany expects the EU’s newest member to meet its European obligations and act like a law-based Western democracy.

Mounting German displeasure has been noted, with Chancellor Angela Merkel declining to attend the EU accession festivities in Zagreb, as she had planned to. Many Croats are now questioning the wisdom of their political class snubbing Croatia’s biggest champion in the EU and NATO, not to mention the most powerful country in Europe. At this point, Germany is unlikely to back down. The political consequences for Croatia, which needs all the friends it can get given the country’s dismal economic situation, are rising and will be painful. Croatia should have confronted its Communist crimes long ago, and the cost of not doing so has now become serious and painful. Tito’s ghost lives on and continues to bring pain.

Moreover, the case of Josip Perkovic has lessons for countries and intelligence services today who may justify serious crimes in the name of fighting terrorism. When it becomes easy to assassinate your enemies abroad while suffering minimal consequences, the death toll inevitably goes up. Last not least, the legacy of UDBA criminality demonstrates that, while most people will forget about acts of terrorism when committed by states, whether you call them “black actions” or “targeted killings,” some people will never forget, and a few will never cease their quest for justice.

P.S. For the benefit of Balkan spy purists, the Yugoslav secret police was known as UDBA (State Security Administration) from 1946 to 1966, and was termed SDB (State Security Service) thereafter, or SDS in Croatia.

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