BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro – In Serbia's darkest hours, Zoran Djindjic stood up to the Balkans' worst dictator and single-handedly engineered Slobodan Milosevic's extradition to the U.N. war crimes tribunal.
Once the autocratic ruler was toppled, Serbia's prime minister spearheaded democratic reforms meant to pull the republic -- long ostracized by the world -- back into Europe's mainstream.
Two fatal bullets fired Wednesday ended the life and aspirations of Djindjic, the man who personified Serbia's hopes for a better future.
Too stunned yet to start its grieving, some Serbs promptly pronounced Djindjic as the country's "own Kennedy" after the admired and assassinated U.S. president.
Born Aug. 1, 1952 to the family of a Yugoslav army officer in Bosanski Samac in neighboring Bosnia -- then part of the former Yugoslavia's six-state communist federation, Djindjic was raised and educated in Belgrade. He studied in the philosophy department of the capital's university, then a hotbed of liberal opposition to Tito's communist regime.
In 1977, he left to earn a doctorate in philosophy at Heidelberg, Germany. His academic career continued abroad, mostly at German universities.
A passionate anti-communist, Djindjic joined the Democratic Party since its founding days and took over its helm in 1994. Milosevic's autocratic rule already had plunged the former country into a series of ethnic wars that wreaked Europe's worst carnage since World War II.
In 1997, together with the Zajedno or "Together" coalition, Djindjic led three months of anti-Milosevic protests that daily challenged the dictator's police on Belgrade streets and caught the attention of freedom-fighters world over.
In 1999, Djindjic succeeded in uniting Serbia's fledgling pro-democracy movement and propelled the rise of Vojislav Kostunica in a popular uprising. It swept Milosevic from power in October 2000.
After Kostunica succeeded Milosevic as Yugoslavia's president, Djindjic emerged as the second most-powerful man in the country, becoming Serbia's prime minister after the pro-democracy alliance's convincing victory in December 1999 elections.
Djindjic's pro-Western government worked hard to bring the country into Europe's mainstream. For many Serbs, hopes of joining the European Union -- and the promise of Western investment, open borders and free trade -- was seen as the only way out of their misery of 60 percent joblessness, low living standards and staggering inflation.
Once in the prime minister's office, Djindjic accused Kostunica of nationalist rhetoric, pessimism and lack of determination to carry out changes after Milosevic's ouster.
Kostunica countered by saying Djindjic sought to turn Serbia into a "Colombia-style" mafia state, and he criticized the prime minister's suave public image, entourage of bodyguards and upscale lifestyle.
Djindjic was aware his pro-Western stance led to shaky popularity in Serbia, where nationalism still prevailed and where many were indoctrinated by Milosevic's reign into believing the West essentially anti-Serb. But he calmly pledged to continue on his reform path, and he declared an open war on the rampant organized crime that had engulfed the region.
Kostunica and Djindjic finally split, with Djindjic outmaneuvering Kostunica when what remained of Yugoslavia was transformed last month into a new, loose union renamed Serbia and Montenegro.
Djindjic's term was due to expire in 2004. It was not immediately clear who might succeed him.
Despite their bitter animosity, Kostunica deplored Djindjic's assassination, saying that while they disagreed on many issues, the shots that took Djindjic's life were "proof that terrorism must be condemned and fought relentlessly, everywhere."
Djindjic is survived by his wife, Ruzica; a son, Luka; and a daughter, Jovana.