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Serbia’s Handball Hooligans

As the country heads toward the EU, an ugly attack seems like a relapse of a disease that just won’t go away.

by Uffe Andersen 22 March 2012

SMEDEROVO, Serbia | Late on 24 January, a large group of Croats were on their way home from the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad after watching their national handball team play in the European championships.

 

Suddenly, a car blocked the road, and 30 to 50 young Serbs attacked the line of cars, smashing windshields. Three Croats were slightly wounded and 15 cars damaged. The Serbian police soon arrested a couple dozen members of football-fan and rightist groups.

 

Red Star Belgrade fans celebrate. Photo by Baseek/Wikimedia Commons

 

Internet forums in Serbia were full of condemnations of the attack, and President Boris Tadic apologized to the Croats on television. But it reminded some commentators of the notorious football match 22 years ago that many former Yugoslavs remember as the point when their country started coming apart.

 

On 13 May 1990, Dinamo Zagreb played at home against Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Belgrade in Yugoslavia’s first football league. One week earlier, Croatia had held its first multiparty elections in half a century, and the clear winner had been the Croatian Democratic Union, which favored secession. When the match ended in a brawl between fans from the country's two largest ethnic groups, Serbs and Croats, it was a political event that seemed to predict the fate of Yugoslavia itself.

 

In the 1990s, with Serbia economically isolated because of sanctions, football became a money machine for leading politicians and dubious types who pocketed millions of Deutschmarks by selling players to foreign clubs and avoiding paying taxes. Several top football officials and managers died in mafia-style killings, while some fan clubs got involved in murders, riots, drug dealing, and theft. Perpetrators were and are only lightly punished, if at all.

 

“The leaders of the fan groups are connected not only to organized crime but to political parties as well,” said Orhan Dragas, director of the Belgrade International Institute for Security, a think tank. “Those people get arrested pretty frequently, but they’re always released after 15 minutes. That means that someone has called the police and ordered that they be let go.”

 

Many believe that fan groups pay their friends in high places to remain above the law. Sonja Biserko, president of Serbia’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, said that explains why the February 2008 protests after Kosovo’s declaration of independence were allowed to degenerate into riots that saw political party headquarters and Western embassies attacked.

 

“During all that time, the police kept at a distance and didn’t act preventively to protect the embassies that are always attacked by those groups,” Biserko said.

 

She contrasts the 2008 violence with police behavior during Belgrade’s gay pride parade in October 2010. By then, nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had left power, and police prevented fan groups and their allies from following through on threats to attack the event.

 

Instead, hooligans caused damages in Belgrade worth 1 million euros and wounded 124 police officers. This “battle of Belgrade” included 6,000 police and as many rioters, who had been bused in from all over the country. The event was regarded not only as a major display of force on the part of the huligani but, more significantly, as a show of organization.

 

“These so-called ‘hooligans’ are very well-organized around certain centers of power – political parties and other groups who are against European integration, against the [Yugoslav war crimes] tribunal in The Hague, etc.,” Biserko said. “Ninety percent of the population views homosexuals negatively, and the anti-European or reactionary groups used this stance as a tool to fight the government and the institutions of the state.”

 

Echoing remarks in a 2009 prosecutor’s request to ban certain fan groups, Biserko warned of efforts to upend the constitutional order by rightist and nationalist parties led by people like Vojislav Seselj, who is on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity in connection with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia; Seselj’s former deputies Tomislav Nikolic (a frequent presidential candidate) and Aleksandr Vucic; and Kostunica himself.

 

But security expert Dragas says it’s not only the right wing that exploits the gangs. Red Star fans “were very active in toppling Milosevic in 2000 and extremely valuable for the then-opposition,” he said. “All political parties have their own fan groups that they’re eager to keep the best of connections with.”

 

Dragas agreed with government officials that the riots appear aimed at sabotaging Serbia’s pro-European ambitions. (The country officially became an EU candidate on 1 March.) But he added, “[A] single group of football fans cannot threaten ‘the European course’ of a whole country if the state wants to prevent them from threatening it. The problem is that the government and the police aren’t doing their job.”

 

Dragas noted that in only drastic cases, like the murder of a Toulouse fan in 2009, are hooligans taken to court.

 

In that incident, a group of visiting Toulouse rooters was attacked in a Belgrade cafe after the French side played the Serbian capital’s other major football club, Partizan. One of the victims, Brice Taton, died of his wounds two days later. His murder deeply shocked the Serbian public, and politicians spoke out strongly against hooliganism, pushing through a law ”against violence in sport and at public meetings.”

 

But such noble reactions are frequently undercut in Serbia. Only two days after the January ambush in Novi Sad, an appeals court reduced the original sentences for the 15 Partizan fans convicted in Taton’s murder from a combined 240 years to 123.

 

Similarly, although Serbia’s highest officials had vowed after the 2010 gay pride debacle to protect the rights of all citizens to walk freely, when the time neared for the October 2011 pride events, a police union joined a far right group in appealing to parade organizers to “show societal responsibility” and abandon their plans.

 

They didn’t. Instead, the authorities banned the parade. “The state capitulated to the hooligans,” Dragas said.

 

Djordje Vukadinovic, editor in chief of the influential, nationalist-minded magazine Nova srpska politicka misao (New Serbian Political Thought), sees the ban differently. He characterized it as push-back against “aggressive promotion” of a culture that is strange to “the traditional Serbian.”

 

The Helsinki Committee wrote after the riots at the 2010 Belgrade Pride that the extremist and fan groups “without any doubt have the ideological support” of certain parties and media, among them Vukadinovic’s magazine. The editor said he has "no personal or ideological link or sympathy with those groups.”

 

But, he warned, “one must take into account the cultural, political, and historical particularities of our society – because if you don’t, promotion of human rights or gay parades may become the basis for counter-reactions from extremist groups.”

 

Vukadinovic sees the pride parade as one salvo in a culture war being waged in Serbia.

 

“At issue is a complete culture that is being promoted aggressively, and for money, donations, from different Western NGOs or governments. Our local NGOs wish to justify the money they get and therefore engage in activities that are opposed to our traditional way of life.”

 

All of which provokes a backlash, Vukadinovic said.

 

“Paradoxically, the people who claim to work for ‘a Western society’ have done more for the affirmation of the extremist groups than the transition, the [financial] crisis, and the wars that Serbia has been through,” he said. ”There’s now a widespread sympathy for those groups in the public that they could earlier only dream of.”

 

Vukadinovic also rejects the notion that xenophobic and nationalist sentiments already prevalent among Serbs provide fertile ground for the anti-European lobby.

 

Serbia is "much less xenophobic than many other countries,” he asserted. While condemning the January ambush of Croatian fans, he said that “people forget that the Croats had been singing and cheering and waving their flags for a whole week before that and hadn’t had any problems.”

 

Dragas does not see the ambush as an isolated attack by a group of marginalized thugs. He called it an example of “criminal-political hooliganism.”

 

“It was as planned as the other incidents – at the parade, or at the Kosovo rally – and not merely an attack on the immediate victims but on the state,” he said.

 

Igor Pavlicic, the mayor of Novi Sad, said the attack was meant to roil normally calm ethnic relations in Vojvodina, the northern province where his city is located.

 

He noted that Novi Sad was the first city in Serbia after the war of the 1990s to get a sister city in Croatia. Vojvodina at large is extremely multicultural, and its roughly 30 ethnic groups have traditionally got on well.

 

“There are always individuals who are not interested in creating good, neighborly relations and who’ll use every opportunity to spoil the good atmosphere that now exists between our countries,” Pavlicic said. “They are the same people and interest groups who didn’t want any negotiated solution in the 1990s when the former Yugoslavia fell apart. The outer expression of those people are always hooligans.”

 

The mayor said the handball attackers did not succeed in “spoiling the atmosphere” of reconciliation – but, he added, the ambush is a reminder that it’s not time to relax just yet.

Uffe Andersen is a freelance journalist in Smederevo, Serbia.

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