Serbia’s hooligans have long punched above their weight on political matters, helping to shape public attitudes in the stadiums and on the street – often with tacit approval from politicians, experts say.
Many remember clashes between supporters of Serbian team Red Star and Croatian team Dinamo in Zagreb in 1990 as the opening salvo in the Balkans conflict that engulfed the former Yugoslavia. Throughout the wars, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević used football fans to promote nationalism and spread propaganda, historians say.
In 2000, hooligan groups turned against Milošević to support the “October 5th Revolution” following disputed elections that led to massive street protests. After Kosovo declared independence in 2008, members of football fan groups ransacked the centre of Belgrade and set fire to the US embassy. “You could tell there was still some hidden influence on the hooligan groups,” said security analyst Saša Đorđević. “During the ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ protest [in 2008], police practically let hooligans destroy the town. You could tell the hooligans were used in certain situations that could not be solved by law.” In subsequent years, hooligans allegedly caused mayhem at Pride Parades, beating up members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They also sent death threats to journalists.
When the newly born Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012, led by Aleksandar Vučić, analysts say the relationship between thugs and state took a new turn. Vučić, who has dominated Serbian politics over the past six years in ever more powerful positions at the top of government, at first took a hard line against hooliganism, pledging all-out war in 2013 when he was deputy prime minister.
In 2014, around 7,000 police protected the Pride Parade in Belgrade, sending a signal that hooligans would no longer be allowed to beat up LGBT marchers in Serbia, an EU candidate country whose human rights record was under international scrutiny. But soon Vučić’s tone became more equivocal. Asked in 2016 if he would make a strong statement about cracking down on violent football supporter groups, Vučić, now prime minister, replied: “It’s a very difficult question for us.” He went on to imply that the state was powerless to defeat the thugs.
When Vučić was sworn in as president in May 2017, after days of massive demonstrations against what many saw as his increasingly authoritarian rule, private security staff hired by the Progressives were photographed manhandling journalists and activists.
Investigative journalists at the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) later revealed that one of the security guards who allegedly used brute force (text in Serbian) that day was Borko Aranitovic, a man close to the Janjičari group, who has worked as a bouncer at Tilt nightclub (where, in a separate incident to the Vukic altercation, security footage shows him looking on as other staff beat up a customer).