Note: I published the following article almost exactly one year ago. In light of the brutal attack on an LGBT conference participant in Belgrade this weekend, I’m republishing it now.
The government just banned the Belgrade Pride Parade for the third year in a row, thousands of violent anti-gay rioters walk the streets with total impunity, and the most powerful politician in the country, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, is a former football hooligan. Welcome to Serbia.
Last week, Serbian officials revealed that they had intelligence about a planned attack on the weekend’s Belgrade Pride Parade. Participants, they’d discovered, would be ambushed with jars full of bees.
Other than the bee oddity from early in the week, the last-minute announcement on Friday sounded very familiar. The Pride Parade, which was scheduled to begin at 10 am the next morning, had been banned for “security reasons”.
Speaking with Serbia’s state television station late Friday, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, who also holds the post of Interior Minister, delivered the news. “Security assessments suggest that there may have been serious breaches of public order and peace, and the only thing above rights and freedoms is the safety and security of citizens,” he said.
The message was the same — almost verbatim — as the statements Mr. Dacic used when he announced the government ban of the Pride Parade in 2012 and 2011.
As the local and international media has reported for three consecutive years, the threat to public safety and security has come from “far-right groups” who have promised that “Belgrade streets will see bloodshed” if the parade is ever permitted to go on as planned.
But what’s rarely mentioned is that the Serbian government has actually made these “serious breaches of public order and peace” possible, by allowing the thousands of football hooligans and far-right extremists who engaged in a violent attack on the 2010 Belgrade Pride Parade and similar assaults on the public to walk free.
Even more disturbing is the fact that the Serbian government is at least partly responsible for the existence of these “far-right groups”. During the 1990s, many football hooligans were organized into wartime paramilitary units under Slobodan Milosevic — whose spokesman and protégé (nicknamed “Little Sloba” for his devotion to his mentor) is now Serbia’s Prime Minister — Mr. Ivica Dacic.
The first Pride Parade was attempted in 2001, just 48 hours after Milosevic was shipped off to the Hague. It did not go well. Hooligans and far-right groups attacked the participants, many of whom were badly beaten. Meanwhile, police seemed unsure of what to do, responding to the violence by firing the occasional warning shot in the air.
Belgrade Pride 2010 was better planned than the first attempt. Officials effectively shut down the entire city center. Parade participants had to show I.D. and pass through multiple police cordons to reach a safe area. Helicopters flew overhead, and armoured vehicles sat at police checkpoints and patrolled the streets. Some 5,600 riot police were dispatched to protect about 1,000 participants. Shortly after the 15-minute march ended, my two companions and I were hurried into the back of a pitch black, windowless police paddy wagon and driven to the outskirts of the city. For our own safety, we were advised to stay away from downtown. We took a taxi to the apartment on the outskirts of Belgrade where my fiance’s parents live, and watched the city center, located just 11 kilometers away, as it burned, live on TV.
We learned that 6,000 far-right rioters — some flown in from Russia — had been on the streets of Belgrade that day. They shouted “death to gays!” and threw bricks, stones, and petrol bombs at police. In response, police officers fired off tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. Football hooligans hijacked a city bus, ordered everyone out, and made an unsuccessful attempt to drive it into the parade.
At the end of the day, there were 158 injuries. The vast majority of the injured were police officers. Three people — one cop and two civilians — sustained injuries severe enough to require hospitalization.
With so much violence and destruction in the capital, one might expect a serious investigation and for thousands of hooligans to be brought to justice. But that’s pretty much the exact opposite of what happened.
According to Serbian media at the time, 249 hooligans and members of “right-wing organizations” were arrested for “disorderly conduct and destroying property.” Only 100 of them were detained.
One of the detainees was Mladen Obradovic, leader of the notorious far-right organization Obraz and the alleged orchestrator of the riot. His “Orthodox clerical-fascist” group was accused of inciting racial, national, and religious hatred so many times that it was banned by the Constitutional Court in July of last year. But Obradovic would receive far more lenient treatment than his organization.
Though there were 100 detainees arrested on the day of the Pride Parade, only Obradovic and 13 others were sentenced for taking part in the attack. Obradovic was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for “disorderly conduct”.
The other 13 rioters received sentences of between eight and eighteen months each. All of them, including Obradovic, were given the minimum sentence allowed by Serbian law.
But they appealed, and since they weren’t deemed a flight risk or a “danger to public order and peace”, they were released and free to live as normal citizens while they awaited the decision of the appellate court.
As I got off a bus in front of Belgrade’s central train station one day last winter, I nearly stepped on Obradovic, who was talking on a smartphone and wearing a t-shirt advertising his banned organization.
In January, an appeals court overturned each of the suspects’ original sentences, citing “a violation of criminal procedure.”
This means that none of the hooligans who attacked the 2010 Pride Parade three years ago have ever been held responsible. It also guarantees that all 6,000 hooligans who participated in the violence remain on the streets, emboldened by impunity, and useful for the authorities to cite as a “threat to order and peace” whenever they want to ban something.
And while Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is on a well-publicized anti-crime crusade right now, for which the West can’t stop giving him naive praise, he hasn’t made any similar attempt to arrest any of the 6,000 hooligans who attacked the Pride Parade in 2010. If he went after them in the same way he’s going after tycoons (who are often connected to the main opposition party, not-so-coincidentally), the “security concerns” associated with holding the parade would be significantly reduced.
Then again, Mr. Vucic was once a football hooligan himself. In an interview with the Croatian weekly Globus in 2008, he described his days as a member of “Delije”, the notorious fans of Belgrade’s Red Star football club. He said he used to travel to Croatia where he would “beat up” supporters of Dinamo Zagreb, known as the “Bad Blue Boys”.
The Observer once called Delije “the most feared hooligans in Europe.” This impressed Slobodan Milosevic very much. “They [Delije] had been an anarchic hooligan force in the 80s, regularly causing havoc at away games, and Milosevic had sought to harness their power,” Jonathan Wilson wrote in the Guardian last year. According to several sources, Milosevic appointed Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic to lead Delije. Later, Arkan would recruit members of Delije to join his much-feared and famously brutal paramilitary group, Arkan’s Tigers. Their activities in Bosnia and Croatia made Arkan one of the world’s most wanted war criminals.
Mr. Vucic was so devoted to Delije that he fought in the Dinamo – Red Star Belgrade riot in May of 1990, an event with “an almost mythic status as the first violence of the war.” Arkan led more than 1,500 dedicated members of Delije to Zagreb, where Dinamo and Red Star were to play a match that CNN would later call one of the “five games that changed the world.” Though accounts of the how the riot began differ (both sides blame the other for starting the violence), Croatian Television recently offered an explanation that has been echoed elsewhere: “The clashes started when Serbian hooligans under the leadership of war criminal Zeljko Arkan Raznatovic started vandalizing the south stands, attacking spectators afterwards.” In his interview with Globus, Mr. Vucic boasted that he was “among the first who occupied the top of the south stands.” The mass riot left 76 people severely injured, some of them stabbed, shot and poisoned by tear gas.
The war broke out a little over a year later.
While former hooligans and their friends naturally fail to jail criminals who resemble themselves, there are some people in Belgrade who are refusing to do things the old way. In defiance of the ban, about 200 people gathered without any official announcement in front of a government building on Friday night, and held a spontaneous midnight pride parade that concluded in front the parliament. One participant called it “the most important thing to happen in Belgrade since the fall of Milosevic.” That kind of optimism won’t last. But at least the bees aren’t scaring anyone away.