Balkan tycoon, once seen as untouchable, stands trial in Serbia

BELGRADE Thu Nov 14, 2013 12:42pm EST

Miroslav Miskovic (C), Serbian billionaire retail tycoon, arrives at the Special Court in Belgrade, November 14, 2013. REUTERS/Djordje Kojadinovic

Miroslav Miskovic (C), Serbian billionaire retail tycoon, arrives at the Special Court in Belgrade, November 14, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Djordje Kojadinovic

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BELGRADE (Reuters) - One of the Balkans' richest men went on trial on Thursday in a high-profile case that the Serbian government says marks a long-overdue drive to end more than two decades of lawlessness.

Miroslav Miskovic, who created an insurance, retail and real estate empire through the 1990s collapse of Yugoslavia and Serbia's emergence from isolation, faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

He was arrested 11 months ago, stunning a region that had long seen him as untouchable.

By bringing him down, the Belgrade government hopes to show that it is serious about tackling the murky nexus of politics, business and organized crime that has flourished in Serbia over the past two decades.

That fight is central to Serbia's campaign to join the European Union, which takes a step forward in January with the expected launch of accession talks.

Miskovic, a slight, bespectacled 68-year-old, is accused of siphoning off millions of euros from a privatized and now bankrupt road repair company between 2005 and 2010. His son, Marko, and nine others are also standing trial.

Miskovic and his Delta Holding company, which employs more than 7,000 people and is projected to turn over some 700 million euros in revenue this year, deny any wrongdoing.

"The indictment is long, but when you finish it there is nothing illegal or immoral to be asserted," said Ian Forrester, a British lawyer who is part of Miskovic's defense team.

Dressed in a three-piece suit, Miskovic repeated his innocence to the court. "I'm not guilty, I don't feel guilty," Radio B92 quoted him as saying. "I didn't understand the indictment, only the personal details, quantitative details and dates, but not one word of the indictment."

"SENDING A MESSAGE"

While riveted by Miskovic's dramatic fall, ordinary Serbs, however, remain skeptical, knowing that parties of all creeds have long courted deep-pocketed businessmen for political patronage, providing protection in return.

Few have deeper pockets than Miskovic, who posted a record 12-million-euro bail in July and was ranked in 2007 among the richest 1,000 people in the world by Forbes magazine, with a fortune estimated at one billion dollars.

His Delta empire is partner with the likes of automakers Honda and BMW, and high street names including Nike, Accessorize and Costa Coffee.

Despite the promises of successive governments since the fall of Serbian strongman president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, the average Serb still grapples with pervasive, low-level graft on a daily basis. The average wage is 380 euros per month.

The anti-graft campaign is the personal project of Serbia's deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, leader of the biggest party in the ruling coalition and the possible next head of government if, as has been widely speculated, he pushes for a snap election after the start of the EU accession talks.

Vucic, in a television interview on Tuesday, promised more arrests to come.

"He is sending a message, to the domestic and international public, that no one is untouchable, and he wants them to believe it," political commentator Petar Lazic said at the start of Miskovic's trial.

He was, however, skeptical of how deep the government would delve. "This is not the twilight of the Serbian tycoons. They will become model citizens, investing and working legitimately. Just don't ask them how they made their first million." ($1 = 0.7460 euros)

(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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