Yesterday evening, the football match between Italy and Serbia, for the European Championship qualifiers, had to be suspended due to the violent behaviour of Serbian hooligans. This happened two days after the Gay Pride Parade in Belgrade, which was marked by the violence of the attack against the Serbian police protecting the parade.
All of this happened a few days after the tenth anniversary of the fall of Slobodan Milošević. The strength of the extreme-right movements in Serbia is a sobering reminder that, although it is undeniable that Serbia has significantly changed since 2000, the legacy of the nationalist goals which helped bring Milošević to power and hold it for 13 years (since 1987), and the culture of violence through which these nationalistic goals were expressed are a serious threat to democracy and Serbia.
During the Pride Parade, unable to reach the LGTB activists, the crowd of 6000 members of extreme-right movements and hooligans supporters of Belgrade’s football clubs targeted the police instead. At least 124 policemen were injured. Such violence is much more than an expression of homophobic hatred. It is, above all, a direct attack to the state institutions of Serbia as a democracy. Although the level of violence in Genoa Yesterday didn’t by far reached the one in Belgrade tow days before, it represents yet another step on the challenge to Serbia as a democratic state, as the violence was exported to a country of Western Europe, to which the Serbian government is so much trying to portray its country as worthy of becoming a member of the European Union.
While in Belgrade the pretext behind the violence was the defence of traditional Serbian Christian values against the decadent and degrading values imposed by western liberalism, in Genoa there was no apparent pretext. It was rioting for the sake of rioting, as a pure demonstration of might. An Albanian flag was burnt, producing thus an eye catching image. But it was not Albania or the Albanians that came under attack in this football match. It was Serbia’s image as a civilized country.
The Italian police is now under criticism for the failure of the security control at the entrance of the stadium, to which it responds that the Serbian authorities failed to inform them about the level of risk, and failed also to take preventive measures in Serbia before the departure of the supporters. According to the Italian officials, quoted by the Italian newspaper La Repubblicca:
Earlier in the day, Red Star supporters attacked the goalkeeper of the Serbian team, Vladimir Stojković. As Belgrade’s website B92 reports:
Stojaković recently joined city rivals Partizan FC and has since been the subject of verbal abuse of Red Star fans.
According to reports, a group of some 30 hooligans approached the team bus, while half a dozen of them entered the vehicle, throwing in a lit flare and “attempting to lynch Stojković”.
This is revealing of the sense of empowerment that these extremists feel. This sense of empowerment is justified. Once in the stadium, the Serbian players tried to cool down the hooligans by saluting them with the traditional three-fingers salute, which has a well-known nationalist connotation. A display of patriotism or a display of submission?
It can be argued that extremist far right violent movements exist all over Europe, and it’s true. This is a very serious European problem, and, at least in this regard, Serbia is quite well integrated in the wider European trends. Indeed a simple google search will make the readers aware of the extent of this integration. Serbia is regularly visited by neo-nazi activists from Western Europe, Russia and the USA, and has become one of the most promising countries for the flourishing on these movements.
What makes this phenomenon particularly worrying in the case of Serbia is that Serbia is not like the other European countries where these movements also have strong roots. Serbia is still a country in transition, which lacks a strong civil society, in which the concept of tolerance is often misunderstood if not simply dismissed, in which the alternative forces to the coalition now in power is composed of hard-line nationalists.
Two years ago I wrote a paper about this phenomenon (recently published as a book chapter here), which by then was already quite visible, but had not yet acquired the vigour it now seems to have. Since then, extremist movements in Serbia have clearly gained ground and became much more violent. Last year, extremists humiliated the Serbian government by forcing it to cancel last year’s Gay Pride Parade. The credibility of their threats was asserted through the random attack by Partizan hooligans against a young French citizen, Brice Taton, who had travelled to Serbia to watch a football match. He was attacked while seating at a café and horribly beaten, and died some weeks later of the injuries.
Afterwards, the Serbian government announced the intention to take measures to curb violence in sports events, and even to ban neo-nazi activities. But, as is evident now, whatever measures may have been taking, they failed to achieve their goal. Today the Serbian Minister of Justice, Slobodan Homem, declared that he believes that these incidents are not merely done by “kids who wish to protest against authorities”, but that they are “organized groups that have financial support”. This is just the same as inventing the wheel, of course, but it is, at least, the first time a member of the Serbian government acknowledges the political significance of these movements.
The Minister points to interest groups who which to undermine the process of EU accession in order to preserve their monopoles; to organized crime; but also to the interest of the opposition parties in weakening the government in order to force early elections. I believe this is a realistic accusation, which highlights how far is Serbia from being a stable consolidated democracy.
The Minister fails, however, to tackle the deeper sources from which these movements spring. Presenting them as mere tools of vested interests, overlooks the fact that these groups have agency of their own. They are ideologically inspired by the tradition of Serbian expansionist nationalism, or, at least, skilfully invoke Serbian nationalism in order to justify their actions. Such invocation successful resonates in the Serbian society. Thus, while the tribute to Brice Taton, last year, gathered 5000 people, the protest against this year’s Gay Parade, organized on the eve of the event, had 10 000 participants. The use of religious symbols and the presence of Orthodox priests in the protests is also revealing. Indeed, sectors of the Serbian Orthodox Church have been consistently, over the years, supported and stimulated clero-fascist groups like Obraz, or Dveri, important elements in this multitude of extremist right-wing groups.
The judiciary system is particularly complicit in the failure to deter these groups, by systematically failing to trial and convict its members, in particular football supporters’ groups, of a number of violent crimes committed over the last decade, as the courageous investigation led by B92 journalist Brankica Stankovic demonstrated. The level of tolerance of the judiciary was further exposed by the aquittal of the Partizan holligans who threatened the journalist to death after her investigation was broadcast.
But, although the current government is now openly challenged by informal groups resorting to violence which appeal to the Serb nationalist or, as they put it, traditional values, as a way to attract supporters and benefit from the tolerance of the larger sectors of society, the government still fails to tackle the primary source of strength these groups have, which is the enduring presence of of nationalism in Post-Milosevic’s Serbia, a legacy which has meanwhile been transmitted to a new generation among which extremism is finding fertile ground.
This, of course, not an easy task, but is one that is not being taken with enough energy by the government, because amidst its own ranks resistance to such an endeavour is great, as was clear by the difficulties faced to approve the resolution condemning the Massacre of Srebrenica. And this is, even more than the strength of extremist movements, the real obstacle towards Serbia’s European integration. Or, at least, it should be.