According to the Serbian investigative portal KRIK, Veljko Belivuk, arrested on multiple charges in February 2021 and notably known as both a leader of the football club Partizan Belgrade’s fan group Principi and as a top underworld figure close to the Montenegrin Kavac clan, described multiple occasions and cases in which President Aleksandar Vucic would have asked for favours, from providing security services at his meetings to beating up opponents.
This case once again highlights the connection between football hooligans (in local language, the word «huligani» is used to describe violent supporters including beyond sport violence) and politics in the Balkans, although this phenomenon is not specific to the region (cases in Russia or Argentina are evidence of that). This connection can be tracked back to the late 1980s when ultra and hooligan groups emerged against the backdrop of increasing nationalist tensions within Yugoslavia. Through slogans, banners, and violence, football fans played their part in the break-up of the country. Hundreds of them then enrolled in the army or in paramilitary groups, be it among Croats, Sarajevo defenders, or Serbs, especially in the famous paramilitary group named Tigers. Their leader, Zeljko Raznatovic “Arkan”, had been tasked in 1989 by the Milosevic regime to be the head of Red Star Belgrade football fan groups so that their potential of destructive violence would not erupt against Milosevic, but rather be channelled for the “defence” of national interests during the war.
As such, football fan groups should be seen as social actors whose ability to mobilize, including over political issues, is undisputable. To that extent, it ought to be remembered that such political mobilizations are not necessarily violent. One may think of the case of Hajduk Split fans successfully mobilizing for a more democratic management of the club in 2011, or the more recent mobilization from the same fans, the Torcida from Hajduk Split, together with the arch-rival Bad Blue Boys from Dinamo Zagreb protesting against corruption within the Croatian Football Association and getting involved in the writing and passing of a sports law between 2012 and2014.
However, as argued by Serbian anthropologist Ivan Colovic in the 1990s, given their subculture based on masculinity, togetherness, solidarity, and their practices regarding social norms and the «quest for excitement» and violence, groups of football fans are more likely to use violence than other social actors. This violence is nevertheless dependent on the context. Namely, it may occur that football fans are at the vanguard of a protest in order to defend people against the police and the regime (e.g., Turkey in 2013, Croatia under the rule of Franjo Tudjman). Violence around several LGBT parades (e.g., in Croatia 2001, Serbia 2010) is another evidence of their potential of political mobilization. Yet what is at stake here is the use of political violence by hooligans that appears to be coordinated by the government (e.g., the assault on the US embassy in Belgrade 2008, clashes during protests in Macedonia in 2016 during the Sarena Revolucija). In some cases, agreements with the government may mean a restrain from using violence . To that extent, it is very likely that after being cancelled under the 2011-2014 governments, the LGBT parade could only be held peacefully in Belgrade from 2014 as a result of an agreement between hooligans and the Vucic’s government.
Yet the regular use of violence in a political context is not enough to explain how Serbia seems to stand out as regards the connection between some football fan groups and their leaders, the Vucic regime and organized crime. Notwithstanding Milosevic’s fall, the security apparatus, which was linked to organized crime, remained partially untouched. Investigations following the assassination of Serbian Prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003 showed how the so-called Zemun clan and some paramilitary groups were involved in the murder. In 2009, the investigation TV show «Insajder» portrayed a dozen of leaders of fan groups from Red Star, Partizan and Rad Belgrade, most of which were involved in alleged drug traffic. More recently, the gang war (for which Belivuk was arrested) between the Kavac and Skaljari clans resulted in many executions in the last seven years, including leaders of fan groups such as Aleksandar Stankovic alias Sale Mutavi, leader of the Jajnicari group from Partizan Belgrade. It exemplifies the centrality of those groups as actors of this very lucrative traffic.
A heritage of communist Yugoslavia is that most clubs in Serbia, including Red Star and Partizan, are public property. Therefore, politicians can still be found on their boards, together with businessmen and leaders of fan groups, some of whom have been indicted for violence or drug traffic. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, the main parties in power (SPS, then DS - for instance Nebojsa Covic -, then SNS) successively took positions within the clubs. According to the legendary sport journalist Milojko Pantic in 2018, “Red Star is SNS, and Partizan is SPS”. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic himself often bragged about having been a Red Star hooligan when he was younger, while it is nowadays demonstrated that hooligans within Partizan are exploited in the stadium and the streets to shut political contestation against him. Besides, Vucic’s son, Danilo, is often seen with those same leaders he went to Russia with during the 2018 World Cup.
Organized crime and the state. Organized crime and football fans. Football fans and the regime. Here is the nexus between those three actors. Therefore, while some experts wonder whether there is still a difference between the mafia and the state in Serbia and Montenegro given the degree of cooperation, the relation between hooligans and the regime can be described as a transactional one in which the state, assuming it is strong enough, won’t try hard to fight against trafficking and crimes committed by hooligan groups, provided those groups won’t get involved into politics against the regime like they did against Milosevic back in 2000. To cement this cooperation, as mentioned, those groups will even get paid to help the regime against its opponents.
In this context, it remains to be seen what impact the arrest of Belivuk, close to the Kavac clan — which the Serbian regime privileged over the Skaljari one — will have on this transactional relation, all the more since the Kavac clan is also suffering from the recent regime change in Montenegro.
 See the articles by Giorgio Fruscione and Bojana Jovanovic within this dossier
 Santek Goran & Tregoures Loic, « A comparison of two fan initiatives in Croatia : Zajedno za Dinamo and Nas Hajduk », Soccer and Society, 2017
 Trégourès, Loïc, « Beyond the pattern : corruption, hooligans and football governance in Croatia », in Garcia, Borja, Zheng, Zinming (eds.), Football and supporter activism in Europe. Whose game is it ?, Londres, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016
 Colovic, Ivan, The politics of symbol in Serbia, Londres, Hurst, 2002
 Elias, Norbert, Dunning, Eric, Sport et civilisation, la violence maîtrisée, Paris, Fayard, 1994
 SNS stands for Serbian Progressive Party, the Vucic’s party, while SPS are the socialists, SNS’s ruling partner
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ISPI and BCSP.