The troubling relationship between Serbian politics and football hooliganism

The troubling relationship between Serbian politics and football hooliganism

The wind howls down a bleak Belgrade avenue, rain thumping against the windscreen of the white Mercedes that carries Aleksandar Stanković gently towards the blurred traffic lights on Bačvanska Street. It is October 2016, and it has been a long day for the man known as Belgrade’s cocaine mule due to his trafficking business.

It was a day of whispered phone calls and hushed meetings, in which discussions of football, politics and crime had all interwoven. In a café across from Partizan Belgrade’s stadium, in a street hemmed in by a church to the west and graveyard to the east, Stanković and his group of Janicari hooligans had spoken nervously about the morning’s newspaper reports – reports that tie the Janjičari’s violent assaults on opposition politicians to the office of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić.

As Stanković returns home via Bačvanska that evening, he doesn’t notice the BMW that pulls into the lane next to him as he slows at the intersection. He doesn’t turn to look towards its darkened windows, behind which two men sit unseen, loading automatic weapons. As traffic lights turn from amber to red, Stanković is sprayed with 17 rounds of bullets. His charcoaled remains are found the next morning, in a Mercedes still smouldering from having been set ablaze.

Search out the intersection today and you find a small stone monument commemorating Stanković. This is not the only one of its kind. A recent spate of killings targeting Serbia’s most prominent football hooligans has seen commemorative shrines erected on a number of Belgrade’s street corners.

Head west, for example, towards the city’s Železnik district and you find not only the bleached pink and yellow high-rises of the communist era, but also an ornate display of clay flowers. Painted black and white in the colours of Partizan Belgrade, the flowers mark the sport where hooligan leader Alen Kostić was killed in 2016.

Head east towards Belgrade’s affluent Dedinje area and you encounter a string of red and white scarves adorning the gates of the Spomen park. Their cherry-red dye starting to fade in the hot Belgrade sun, the scarves pay tribute to Red Star Belgrade hooligans Aleksandar Roganović and Alek Joksić – both victims of brutal assassinations. Such images are snapshots of a broader trend. In 2016, 10 senior members of Serbia’s leading football firms were murdered. In 2017, the number rose to 12.

The deaths have spurred a broader soul-searching as to the state of Serbian politics today. In particular, they have led to scrutiny of the relationship between government, football hooligans and organised crime. Serbia is a country whose population has grown wary of football’s ability to serve as the handmaiden of extreme right-wing ideology. It is not forgotten that Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb general instrumental to the Srebrenica massacre of 7,000 Bosniaks, recruited militants from amongst Red Star fans during his time as the club’s psychiatrist. Or that, on a thunderous Belgrade evening in March 1992, flares strewed across the night like wildfire as Red Star fans chanted for their nation’s army to “Kill all the Croats! Slaughter all the Albanians.”

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The 1990s’ toxic mix of sport and politics has led many Serbs to see football hooligans as canaries in the nation’s political coal mine. Such is the way that football violence has been accommodated and instrumentalised by successive governments that once football hooligans start dying in numbers, this suggests that something is amiss in the country’s politics.

This is a country, remember, where the state has previously recruited hooligans to fight in wars, attack LGBT protesters at the 2010 Belgrade Gay Pride Parade, as well as launch a 2011 attack on a Kosovo-Serbia border crossing. It is not surprising, therefore, that,  according to 2009 study by the academic Richard Mill, 52.9 percent of Serbs see in the state of the national game its administration and fan violence, an indication of the broader integrity of the country’s political system.

As Serbia continues at the World Cup in Russia, its people will find that this phenomenon runs both ways. Just as Serbs see in the state of their national game an indication of the integrity of their nation’s politics, so too a global public looks to the conduct of Serbian football fans when judging societal progress in the Balkans. As the sociologist Souvik Saha has shown, ever since the involvement of paramilitary units of Serb football fans in the Yugoslav Wars gained global media attention in the 1990s, Serbian football and society have been imagined through the prism of hooliganism and savagery.

This international outlook has been reaffirmed in recent years. When in 2010, wire cutters in hand, balaclava draped over face, Ivan Bogdanov sliced through the metal turnstiles separating Italy and Serbia fans in Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris, he caused an international furore. The crowd violence he sparked reaffirmed an image, whether warranted or not, of Serbia as a nation of hooliganism and thuggery. Named ‘Ivan the Terrible’ after the 16th-century Russian tsar by the Italian media, Bogdanov once again dredged up the ghosts of the 1990s at a Serbia-Albania match in 2014, instigating a mass melée on the field.

Serbia travels to Russia seeking to present a reformed image of its football and society. As Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dačić recently told the Serb tabloid Kurir, the country needs to dispel the myth that its people are football hooligans turned militants. Dačić’s message is reflective of the image-conscious politics of Aleksandar Vučić’s government- Vučić wanting to project an image of a modern and tolerant nation to his western counterparts. As a consequence, Serbian authorities are seeking to ensure that any discussion of Ivan the Terrible during the World Cup concerns only the Russians’ sudden craze for their former tsar.

When the Serbian team arrives in Moscow to play Brazil, they will find a city in which 15 statues of the tsar are being erected each year according to Russia’s National Research University. In Belgrade, Serbia’s Ivan will be remaining statuesque in another sense. In early 2018, Serbia’s Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović placed 26 of Serbia’s leading hooligans, including Bogdanov, under house arrest until the end of the World Cup.

Yet amidst this talk of a new Serbia, the death of Aleksandar Stanković shines a light on a deeper truth. Whilst in its foreign policy the government talks tough on hooliganism to garner western support, domestically, experts say Vučić’s regime is complicit in its violence. According to Dobrivoje Radovanović, Director of the Belgrade Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research, rather than viewing football hooligans as a threat to law and order, government officials use these group of young men as political enforcers.

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In doing so, they leave hooligans a long leash on which to partake in organised crime and drug trafficking. The result? A dystopian scene in which Belgrade’s streets play host to killings by rival sets of transnational, organised crime rings, very few of which ever get reported on by a media subject to state control. The media lies silent for a reason: these mafia-style groups often appear to be connected to government officials.

In the case of Stanković, an internal government intelligence report obtained by Serbia’s Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) shows that the Montenegrin crime group alleged to have murdered him had known links to Ivica Dačić’s national security advisor, Ivica Tončev. Vučić, having moved from Prime Minister to President of Serbia in 2017, cannot claim to have been ignorant of this. Media reports concerning Tončev’s links to the Montenegrin group date back to 2008.

All this is easy to sweep under the carpet in a country where the government has consolidated its control over the media. Even the country’s largest private broadcaster, RTV Pink, received €7m in government loans between 2014 and 2016. According to Dubravka Valić Nedeljković, a professor of media studies at the University of Novi Sad, RTV Pink now devotes 267 times more coverage to positive news stories concerning Vučić than it did in the period prior to the loans.

That Vučić would employ the services of hooligans should not be of surprise given his background. A 2008 investigative report by the Croat weekly Globus found that the president is a former football hooligan himself, having been a member of Red Star Belgrade’s notorious Delije. Vučić acknowledges having fought in the “Battle of the Maksimir,” the Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade riot of May 1990. An event that has gained almost mythic status, Vučić claims to have been one of the first members of the Delije to have clambered onto the field in a mass riot that left 76 people severely injured, some of them stabbed, shot or poisoned by tear gas.

There is also here the question of Vučić’s political engagement with football hooligans during the Yugoslav Wars. Vučić served as spokesman for Vojislav Šešelj, leader of the Chetniks militia responsible for the Visegrád and Voćin massacres in Bosnia and Croatia respectively. When Šešelj appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 2009, material presented before the court suggested that Vučić himself might have recruited hooligans from FK Vojvodina to fight for the Chetniks. Šešelj’s trial ended in 2016 with this issue remaining unresolved.

Vučić’s time as First Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia from 2012 to 2014 doesn;’t inspire confidence either. Appearing at a political rally celebrating Tomislav Nikolić’s 2012 electoral success, Vučić stepped onto the stage flanked by Mladen Obradović, leader of the notorious far-right Red Star supporters group Obraz. The alleged orchestrator of the Belgrade anti-gay riot of 2010, when 6,000 far-right militants attacked a thousand LGBT activists with Molotov cocktails, bricks and stones, Obradović’s Obraz was banned by the Serb Constitutional Court in late 2012 for promoting neo-Nazi ideology.

It was on this issue of the anti-gay riot that Vučić’s use of his government office to support football hooligans first came under the spotlight in 2012. This was the year in which he announced a nationwide “war on crime” having assumed the office of Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. It was also the year in which Serbia’s state prosecutor, Slobodan Radanović, announced the first court cases against those football hooligans who participated in the 2010 riot.

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As the academic Dragan Koković has shown, when it came to Vučić’s general war on crime, alleged government pressure on judges to find guilty verdicts led to conviction rates rising from 51 percent of all criminal complaints in 2012 to 63 percent by 2014. When it came to the state prosecutor’s cases against football hooligans, however, conviction rates fell to 2.4 percent.

The low conviction rates appear to be connected to Vučić’s decision in 2012 to bail out Red Star using government funds. Having positioned his business partner Slaviša Kokeza as vice president of the club, Vučić appears to have pressed for an unusually large number of judges to receive honorary positions on the club’s board. Zoran Ivošević and Novica Peković, both of Serbia’s Supreme Court, were swiftly appointed to board positions. The three judges responsible for overseeing the bulk of football hooliganism cases also received honorary positions. Thus Ante Bošković, President of Belgrade’s Sixth Municipal Court, became chairman of the Assembly of Red Star, a new management structure to which the judges Tomislav Zeković and Zoran Pašalić were also appointed.

Whether as a result of these appointments or not, the support of Serbia’s judiciary seems to have swung firmly in favour of the nation’s football hooligans. Of the 13 hooligans originally convicted for their role in the 2010 riots, each found their sentences overturned by January 2013. Consequently, of the 329 indictments originally brought against football hooligans, not one resulted in a conviction.

Pašalić’s cases, in particular, featured a number of disturbing procedural irregularities. The case against Alen Kostić, the latter indicted for eight charges of grievous bodily harm, was simply halted then dismissed without any live proceedings. Pašalić’s reasoning was that since police were having difficulty finding Kostić, it was impossible to continue the trial. Yet when Kostić was eventually arrested, Pašalić granted him bail rather than remanding him in custody despite it being evident that Kostić would just flee again. This pattern of events was repeated in the trials concerning Ljubomir Marković and Aleksandar Valić, despite charges of attempted murder featuring on both prosecution indictments.

A set of 2013 charges brought against Aleksandar Stanković on account of drug trafficking saw judicial manoeuvres taken to new heights. Belgrade’s First Court convicted Stanković, but it equally refused to send him to prison. Prior to Stanković’s death, the court on 12 separate occasions allowed him to delay serving his sentence. Accepted excuses included Stanković suffering a urinary tract infection, a slipped disk and a sore knee.

Some in Serbia believe that the medical evidence Stanković presented to the court was often forged or procured with the help of state officials. The signature of Nikola Atanasijadis, head surgeon at the Clinical Centre of Serbia, adorns the bottom of seven of the medical certificates Stankovic presented to the court. Yet Atanasijadis denies any knowledge of having signed these documents.

Other certificates presented to the court were provided by doctors employed in state institutions, principally the army’s Military Medical Academy and Emergency Centre. That judges were prepared to invest faith in such army certificates has understandably raised eyebrows. In 2012, the head of the Serbian Army Union, Nikola Antić, had already acknowledged in an interview that Stanković and his Janicari were regularly invited to use military facilities for training. Given this, some commentators have found it convenient that the army also provided Stanković with medical diagnoses.

Encouraged by the judicial protection seemingly afforded to them, football hooligans appear to have played the role of political enforcers. At a 2014 electoral rally for Vučić in Belgrade, Stanković and his Janicari were photographed by the Serb daily Danas standing side by side with Serbia’s Special Police Forces, helping them with crowd control. When one young anti-Vučić supporter began shouting expletives towards the stage, Stanković intercepted her, dragged her away by the hair.

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This is not the only occasion on which football hooligans have helped with crowd control. At Vučić’s inauguration ceremony as president in May 2017, tabloids Kurir and Blic captured footage of thugs forcefully removing protestors and journalists while gripping them in choke holds. The leader of the group was later identified as Borko Aranitović, successor to Stanković as the leader of the Janicari, Of greater concern was that the footage showed Aranitović liaising with a member of Serbia’s Special Police Forces, Nenad Vučković, to remove the protestors. Such co-operation appears to be more than co-incidental: Vučković and Aranitović have been photographed attending Partizan Belgrade matches together.

There are also reports that football hooligans have assisted Vučić push through proposed political reforms. Prior to the parliamentary elections in 2016, Vučić had signed a $300m contract with a UAE company to redevelop Belgrade’s waterfront. Yet the opposition of local residents living in the area had frustrated Vučić’s attempts to get planning permission to demolish the existing buildings on the proposed site of the development. The endgame? On the night of the elections in April 2016, 30 masked men alleged by many to be the Janicari simply bulldozed the structures. They subsequently killed the only witness of the event.

As Serbian fans arrive in Moscow’s Red Square, they will set sight on the famous colourful onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The cathedral was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century and, as guides mischievously tell local tourists, legend has it that he ordered for the architect’s eyes to be cut out after he finished building it. Such tales of barbarism are likely to make the average Serb visitor feel uneasy, the ghosts of their own terrible Ivan not yet able to be relegated to distant history. It has only been four years since Ivan Bogdanov sprawled onto the pitch waving a Greater Albania flag.

Yet turn east and look towards the red walls of the Kremlin and Serb fans are more likely to feel at home. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Serbs will see the mirror image of their own domestic regime. For in Putin’s managed democracy, football hooligans are also used as political enforcers whilst a hollowed-out media lies dormant, the three major Russian TV channels all state-owned or operating as state enterprises.

In Russia, too, football hooligans are recruited for foreign wars. The SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, a Russian research body on nationalism and racism in the country, reported in 2014 that the Kremlin had sent 200 far-right football hooligans to fight in Ukraine. Similarly, according to a Whitehall report in 2016, a significant number of those Russians who attacked English fans in Marseille at Euro 2016 were members of Putin’s “uniformed services.”

And in Russia too, a government seeks to dispel the image that its football fans are hooligans turned militants. If Putin has his uses for these political enforcers, he nevertheless has ensured that they are shuffled discretely off-stage whilst a global audience takes its seats for a Russian World Cup. In December 2016, more than a hundred police officers and members of the FSB, Russia’s security service, raided hooligans’ homes, seizing firearms and weaponry. In all, more than 200 Russian hooligans have been placed under house arrest during the World Cup.

For all that the name might make Serbs shudder, for all that it might bring back memories of a past wished to be forgotten, Serbia will find itself quite at home in the land of Ivan the Terrible.

By Alexander Shea @alexjshea

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