Serbia's Handball Hooligans
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#1 Mar 22, 2012
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.
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.”
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