A series of houses demolished overnight without any police intervention, a strange deal between a state-owned munitions factory and a private company, a smear campaign against an independent media outlook that has been investigating over these and similar episodes.
Without further details on the context and their players, these events look like ‘normal’, though disconnected, quasi-criminal activities. Instead, they share a big burden: they all show how the rule of law in Serbia has been endangered over the last years and how the Serbian ruling elite has actively participated in it.
The Savamala affair, the Krusik “deal”, and the threats against KRIK’s journalists are just a few of the episodes known to the general public in Serbia since the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) took power in 2012.
Among many, the aforementioned three events will be analysed as each of them represents a feature in the erosion of the rule of law that goes hand in hand with Serbia’s authoritarian drift. In particular, they best represent the way contemporary Serbia has shifted from being a captured state to a state wherein the line between ruling elites and criminal groups has grown completely blurred.
On the night between the 24th and 25th of April, 2016, a few hours after the polls closed for the snap parliamentary elections, a group of masked men entered Hercegovacka street, in the Savamala district of the centre of Belgrade, and destroyed several houses and buildings. Despite the calls for help, the police never intervened. The following month, then-prime minister Aleksandar Vucic said that some of the city’s highest officials were responsible and that they would face legal consequences. Since then, no one of them has been prosecuted for the Savamala affair, and then-mayor Sinisa Mali – who was implicated in the case, as his ex-wife testified – later became Minister of Finance. The only person ever to be held responsible was the police officer who received the call and refused to send the police to the scene: he received a suspended sentence of five months of probation for negligence. The episode sparked long protests in Belgrade, as it was clear state authorities stood behind the affair. In Savamala, new buildings were under construction for the controversial “Belgrade waterfront” residential project.
Another of the most representative scandals is the “Krusik” affair, named after a Serbian state-owned arms manufacturer. According to the investigation conducted by BIRN, a private company represented by Branko Stefanovic – father of then Serbian Interior Minister and SNS presidency member, Nebojsa Stefanovic, who today serves as Minister of Defence –, had been buying weapons from Krusik at preferential prices, below the cost of production. The investigation showed that, by selling weapons at less than the cost of production, the state both benefited a private company represented by the relative of a high-ranking politician and caused an economic loss to the Serbian state. To make matters worse in the whole Krusik affair, state officials reacted by jailing and publicly attacking Aleksandar Obradovic, the whistle-blower who leaked the information to the media, while denying any wrongdoing.
- Belivuk’s arrest and the attack against KRIK
The third episode is the smear campaign against KRIK — a Serbian independent media outlet specialised in reporting about criminal and corruption activities, including the abovementioned Krusik affair. Over the last months, KRIK was publicly attacked by pro-regime tabloids accusing the media outlet to be in league with the Veljko Belivuk-led criminal group, who was previously arrested and whose activities were investigated by KRIK itself. According to KRIK, Belivuk, aka “Velja the Trouble”, belonged to the Kavac group – one of the two clans from Montenegro, the other one being “Skaljari”, whose rivalry has resulted in several deaths – and had close ties with the Serbian establishment and police, enjoying their protection in his illicit activities. As further media investigation show, Belivuk claimed he did many favours to the Serbian regime and even met in person with President Aleksandar Vucic.
What do they stand for?
These three episodes occurred throughout a five-year period, they are not connected and – apart from the ruling elite, whose members only changed position – they involve different players. Yet, they stand as the modus operandi of Vucic’s ‘progressive’ Serbia and they could be considered as three complementary pieces of a political engine that is pivotal for today’s Serbian authoritarian scheme.
The Savamala affair shows that police in Serbia is no longer the executive power’s main enforcement agency: instead, masked, unauthorised men can carry out police duties. In other words, criminal groups are a proxy for state police. For Belgrade citizens, the Savamala demolitions stand as a milestone of erosion of the rule of law in Serbia, as police authorities comply with ruling elites rather than serving people’s needs. A milestone that today is embodied by the new buildings and skyscrapers in the very place where the Savamala demolitions occurred: with shady money and no transparency behind the project, the “Belgrade waterfront” is thus one of the symbols of Vucic’s Serbia. In a similar way, the primacy of informal groups over the police was also confirmed by media investigations into Belivuk’s activities. In fact, beside illegal trafficking, Belivuk’s criminal group carried out many “public services”, like securing the Pride parade in the street of Belgrade or avoiding that Partizan supporters chant offensive slogans against President Vucic during football matches.
The Krusik affair, instead, represents the economic power and the privileged status enjoyed by the ruling elite, and their relatives. The case shows that for SNS members reaching the top of the Serbian state means acting above it, taking advantages from its national resources, and even provoking economic loss to the state itself. According to investigations carried on by the Serbian weekly NIN, a private company known as GIM – represented by the Interior Minister’s father – bought mines for USD 45.2, while the cost for the factory was USD 45.3. GIM acted as an intermediate between Serbia and Saudi Arabia and, according to NIN, the contracts were worth at least USD 5 and half million. NIN also revealed that the same kind of mines were sold by Krusik to a Polish company for USD 78. Being Krusik a state-owned manufacturer, it means these contracts caused consistent financial losses for the Serbian state and its fruitful arms industry. To make things more absurd, it’s worth mentioning that Krusik has a debt of over USD 5 million, half of which would be paid off if the mines were sold to GIM at the same price as it did to other international buyers.
The fact that the only legal consequences of this affair were paid by the whistle-blower who leaked information to the media shows that no one can dare to doubt ruling party leaders. In this respect, Serbian rule of law is endangered to the extent that party cadres are no longer servants of the state; rather, they benefit from a state that provides them with national resources.
Finally, the whole case around Belivuk and the smear campaign against KRIK journalists stands as the ultimate defence rampart of the regime. Belivuk’s arrest came at a time when his illicit activities gained too much visibility, and thus connections with Serbian top institutions were too ‘exposed’. The police operation was accompanied with the regime’s triumphant rhetoric of “war against mafia”. However, as investigations and Belivuk’s claims exposed the involvement of state institutions, the operation could be rather intended as an octopus amputating a tentacle when it got stuck in trouble. In other words, for the Serbian regime, Belivuk – who has been a SNS member for ten years – was a burden to the ruling party and had to be sacrificed for two complementary reasons: preserving top institutions image, and showing the state is reactive in fighting the mafia. In the end, accusing KRIK of being in cahoots with the clan is a self-defence mechanism with propaganda purposes. The intent is to discredit the few independent Serbian media outlets and offer the public a harmonized, regime-approved reality: the state fights the mafia, and whoever dares to doubt this is considered mafia, too.
From capture state to a mafia one?
When SNS came to power, the mafia and criminal groups were already strong. The Balkans’ criminal galaxy had the chance to flourish during the break-up of Yugoslavia and Milosevic’s era, when trafficking, smuggling, and common crimes became a kind of “new normal”, namely in Serbia and Montenegro. The assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003 showed that criminal clans still had strong ties within and from the state. The rhetoric that led SNS to the first electoral victory in 2012 focused on the fight against corruption, mafia, and tycoons. In reality, party leaders were aware these three were their best allies in order to maintain power.
However, while the mafia and the central state were two rather distinct actors during Milosevic’s rule, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was still a functional — albeit weakened — state, today the distinction between the two does not exist anymore. The state is simply a vessel to be filled, while the real “functionality” is provided by party structure and membership. Against this backdrop, criminality could be intended as a governance tool. As argued by sociologist Balint Magyar, the Mafia state is run by a “patron” and his “court”, who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. Today’s Serbian ruling elite works for its own particular interests, taking advantages from the public ones. However, through pro-government tabloids, regime’s propaganda has intensively worked in presenting President Vucic as the only defender of national interests, branding all opposition leaders and independent media outlets as traitors and criminals.
Finally, given the links between Serbian ruling elites and criminal groups, even with a democratic regime-change – though it is difficult to foresee it – the dividing line between the two would hardly be restored. Having been two complementary components of the same system, an eventual political defeat of SNS would not automatically cut the mafia’s long-established ties with the Serbian state.
 The Belgrade Center for Security Policy made an interactive timeline of the most significant events occurred since SNS took power in Serbia showing the state capture process: https://zarobljavanje.bezbednost.org/
 G. Fruscione, “The Virus of Authoritarianism: The Case of Serbia”, in G. Fruscione (Ed) The Pandemic in the Balkans: Geopolitics and Democracy at Stake, Milano, ISPI-Ledizioni, 2020.
 See the article by Bojana Jovanovic The Regional Dimension of a Montenegro's Local Criminal Feud within this dossier.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ISPI and BCSP.