Serbia – when will the “culture of violence” finally end?

Insufficient steps to tackle the problems that led to the recent violence in Belgrade and Genoa highlight the tangled nexus of organized crime, political opposition to modernization and EU membership, and football hooliganism in Serbia.

By Christian Axboe Nielsen

Fans of football and Balkan experts know all too well that football hooliganism and violent riots have been a regular feature of Serbian football in recent years. Last Sunday, a highly combustible mixture of extreme nationalist organizations and football hooligans rioted on the occasion of the Gay Pride parade in Belgrade, putting waste to sections of the city and injuring hundreds. Two days later, the same extremist groups convened in the football stadium in Genoa, creating so much havoc that the referee cancelled the match between Italy and Serbia after only a few minutes of play. The Serbian Football Association must now wait and see whether they will be disqualified from further participation in the qualifications for the 2012 European football championship, or whether they will receive milder punishment. Whatever the outcome, the events of the past week have provoked an unprecedented outcry in the Serbian media. From the liberal news weekly Vreme to the right-wing tabloid Kurir at the opposite end of the journalistic spectrum, journalists have deplored the “terror” and “disgrace” caused by hooligans. When even Kurir – a newspaper usually fond of fanning the flames of homophobia – writes that hooligans are causing “the death of Serbia,” something is stirring – almost ten years to the day after the ouster of Slobodan Milošević.

Let us take a quick look at the two events. Serbia was under enormous pressure from the EU and the US to ensure that the Gay Pride parade could be held successfully. Only a year ago, the Serbian authorities had essentially capitulated in the face of threats of physical violence against the Gay Pride parade. After the authorities told the organizers of the parade that they could not guarantee their security and asked them to move the parade away from the city centre, the organizers decided to cancel the event. This led to some discussion of bans against extremist organizations and tougher jail sentences against hooligans, but very little came of this. This year Western embassies had sent a clear message to Belgrade that they had to do better, and the EU Ambassador in Serbia declared that he would attend the event. 5,600 police officers and the entire staff of the civilian intelligence agency were put on duty on Sunday in order to protect the estimated 1,000 participants in the Gay Pride parade against an army of an estimated 6,000 hooligans. While the massive security presence ensured that the parade was held without significant injuries to the participants, the material damage to the city was significant, and over 100 police officers were treated for injuries. On Monday and Tuesday, the local spokesperson for the EU and visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both complimented the Serbian authorities on a job well done.

Yet was this really a successful operation? As Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs, Ivica Dačić, admitted in a television debate on Monday, the riots were hardly a surprise. Anyone with an internet connection and proficiency in Serbian could easily have spotted the chatter on extremist forums and bulletin boards in the weeks leading up to the event. So why were preventative measures not implemented, for example by stopping the massive influx of young men from other regions of Serbia to Belgrade in the days before the parade? After all, police reports after the event indicated that 60% of the rioters came from the provinces, and the hooligans worked efficiently in well-organized teams to attack specific institutions and symbols (including a mobile mammography station). All of this was in large part a predictable replay of the February 2008 riots in Belgrade after Kosovo declared its independence. Dačić passed the buck to the Ministry of Justice instead, claiming that the police could not ban such organizations and their plans. Nor did Dačić bother to conceal his anger at the EU for forcing Serbia to permit the Gay Pride parade. Dubravka Filipovski, the vice-president of the centre-right New Serbia party, used the same interview to criticize the government for not banning the Gay Pride Parade in order to prevent unrest. Instead, she accused the government of trying to find excuses to ban right-wing organizations.

On Tuesday evening, Serbia and Italy met in Genoa for a qualifying match for the 2012 European football championship. And, once again, the premeditated intentions of the hooligans had been clearly announced online. Already before the match began, hundreds of young Serbs were marauding through the streets of the city. The hapless goalkeeper for the national side, Vladimir Stojković, who had switched earlier in the year from the club Red Star to archrival Partisan, was very nearly lynched by the hooligans and is now protected by bodyguards. In the stadium, Serbian fans threw flares onto the field, climbed onto security railings and vandalized stadium infrastructure. The Italian police arrested dozens of Serbian fans, including Ivan Bogdanov, one of the alleged leaders of the hooligans. It quickly emerged that Bogdanov had also been one of those who attacked the US Embassy in Belgrade in February 2008. Even as the Serbian ambassador in Italy and the Serbian foreign minister issued an official apology to Italy, Dačić and others in Serbia accused the Italian authorities of failing to prevent Serbian fans from entering the stadium with various weapons and flares. The real question is why hooligans who have repeatedly been arrested and prosecuted for violent acts continue to be able to free to roam the streets and stadiums of Serbia – and to travel abroad to football matches. Precisely this topic – the impunity of hooligans – was painstakingly covered by the television station B92 last year in an excellent documentary on the impotence and lethargy of the Serbian state in its struggle against hooliganism. Brankica Stanković, the producer of the program, demonstrated that the Serbian judiciary was both incapable and unwilling to punish even serious repeat offenders. For her pains, Stanković was threatened repeatedly by extremist hooligan organizations and had to receive police protection.

We have seen outbreaks of violence related to so-called patriotic organizations and football hooliganism before in Serbia. Some of these have been more violent than the past week’s riots, for example in September 2009 when a young fan of FC Toulouse, Brice Taton, was killed in Belgrade by hooligans. Such violence has not been restricted to foreigners unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As I showed in an article published in Nationalities Papers, a considerable number of Serb football fans and even managers of Serbian football clubs have been killed since 1991. Yet with the partial exception of the brief period following the 2003 assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić, the state has rarely acted decisively. Put simply, there is a tangled nexus of organized crime, political opposition to modernization and EU membership, and football hooliganism, and one cannot attack one aspect of this without tackling them all. All of this can be easily traced back to the early 1990s, when the Miloševć regime let figures such as Željko Ražnatović “Arkan” use football fan clubs as recruiting bases for paramilitary organizations. An entire generation of young Serbian men grew up in “culture of violence,” and Eric Gordy demonstrated that alternatives to this culture were systematically destroyed. (This was most memorably depicted in Srđan Dragojević’s 1998 film “Rane.”)

This week’s public outcry in Serbia against the “culture of violence” is greater than anything I can recall seeing in the last two decades. But will this time finally be different? The complete saturation of the Serbian media with outrage after the events of Sunday and Tuesday give reason for very cautious optimism. I would like to highlight briefly two extraordinary statements made in the wake of the recent violence. First, the former football star Savo Milošević called the events in Genoa “one of the darkest days in the history of Serbian football.” He went on to state that “These are matters which the state should have controlled. Unfortunately the state has for the past 20 years stood on the sidelines regarding sport. The state institutions that are responsible for our sport have their responsibility, because no one can tell me that these people cannot be controlled or held under observation. There were also indications that something could happen in Italy. All this was known by certain persons. Why the state does not react, why such things must happen before anyone reacts, I really do not know. I know that sports has been left for last in this kind of reorganization in our state. … Once again we will pay a high price because of our inertia, our disinterest, our lack of will to grab the problems by the root.” Milošević particularly emphasized that the hooligans were the symptom of a much wider problem, a theme also treated elsewhere.

The other strong statement emphasizing the complicated and structural nature of the problem came from Bruno Vekarić, Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor. In a strongly worded article, Vekarić began by citing Zoran Đinđić’s statement that “there are weeds in every state, only in Serbia the weeds are watered.” Retracing the riots of recent years against homosexuals, the independence of Kosovo and the arrest of Radovan Karadžić, Vekarić argued that these matters are only nominal excuses for hooligans and their institutional supporters. In unusually direct terms, he specifically criticized former prime minister Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia and ultra-conservative members of the Serbian Orthodox clergy for fanning the flames of hatred. Vekarić concluded by stating that the unrest in Serbia “showed that our society is seriously ill,” and arguing that the country’s prosecutorial organs and judiciary now had to treat this problem, and hence to pass a test that they had failed for years. (Although it is remarkable, Vekarić’s article contradicted arguments that he had himself used in earlier years to explain why the Serbian state could not risk provoking the ire of the street by arresting fugitive war criminals wanted by The Hague.)

Much still needs to change in Serbia, and the rule of law continues to be tenuous. The judiciary must be reformed thoroughly, in particular in order to remove judges sympathetic to hooliganism and to ensure that violent repeat offenders cannot abuse the system by appealing their cases ad absurdum while continuing to commit new offences. For over one year now, the Constitutional Court of Serbia has postponed deliberations on a proposed ban of 14 extremist organizations, and those who have committed violent acts have enjoyed virtual impunity. Representatives of extreme fan clubs that have provoked violent incidents must not only be banned from stadiums, but must also be expelled from the executive boards of Serbian football clubs, where many of them continue to sit. State officials and football club officials must stop blaming each other for the problems and instead act resolutely together to eliminate hooliganism.

A couple of conspiracy theories are making the rounds after this week’s events. According to one, extremist organizations receive generous funding from the illegal narcotics trade and/or Serbian tycoons who have a vested interested in preventing Serbia from joining the European Union. And, indeed, many ordinary Serbs have wondered how hundreds of young men from a poor country can afford to travel abroad to attend football matches. Serbian financial and judicial authorities must investigate this problem and act accordingly. However, an obvious reason explains the reluctance of the authorities to do this. It is virtually inevitable that such investigations will reveal that some of the very same donors who finance extremists are also bankrolling some of the major political parties in Serbia. In the eyes of liberal Serbs, the very same political forces who support Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić and who were involved in the assassination of Đinđić are also engaged in supporting “patriotic” organizations and their hooligan allies.

Serbian officials have again (as in 2008 and 2009) announced their intention to prosecute and ban extremist organizations. In terms of combating the narrow problem of hooliganism, Serbian and international officials agree that England has shown the way. Let us be frank: this is not about eliminating hooliganism entirely. No European country has managed this feat, as events in England, Denmark, Germany and elsewhere regularly show. This is about showing that the state will not tolerate large-scale hooliganism masquerading under the banner of patriotism and challenging the authority of the state.

One thing remains clear after this past week. Serbia’s authorities cannot dawdle and yet again postpone action. Their next test is right around the corner, when Partisan and Red Star (the most highly fined club in European football) meet in Belgrade on 23 October for the latest round of what Serb football fans call the “eternal derby.” (According to Minister Dačić, the police already spends up to 500,000 Euros per derby match on security.) For the sake of all who truly love both football and Serbia, let us hope that only the derby is eternal – and that pervasive, violent hooliganism will finally been defeated.

Christian Axboe Nielsen is an assistant professor of Southeast European Studies at the University of Aarhus. This article originally appeared on the blog of the Association for the Study of Nationalities, which focuses upon nationalism, ethnicity and national identity around the world.

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