In Serbia, State’s Ties to Crime Become Hard to Miss
17 Feb 2021

According to the Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar, in a ‘mafia state’ “The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organisation.

The term was applied to Montenegro in the 1990s, when state-sanctioned cigarette smuggling provided a financial lifeline during the wars and sanctions of Yugoslavia’s collapse, and later to Kosovo, when Hashim Thaci, a former president and prime minister now charged in The Hague with war crimes, was accused by a Council of Europe investigator of exerting “violent control” over the trade in heroin, an accusation he denied.

If, as Venezuelan journalist Moises Naim argued in Foreign Affairs in 2012, senior government officials in a mafia state “actually become integral players in, if not the leaders of, criminal enterprises”, then experts say the revelations of the past few years show Serbia too now fits the bill.

The evidence is damning – from the involvement of security service officials in the industrial-scale production of marijuana and the documented ties between Serbia’s ruling party and a crime gang accused of murder and drug trafficking, to the state protection enjoyed by a notorious businessman accused of ordering the murder of a prominent politician.

“All those elements suggest that Serbia is indeed a mafia state, where the demarcation line between the state and organised crime is not at all clear,” said Bojan Elek, a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, a think-tank.

Serbia has blurred that line before.

As Yugoslavia collapsed in war, the Serbian authorities under strongman Slobodan Milosevic became deeply intertwined with street thugs and war criminals, giving rise to powerful, politically-connected gangs and a climate of impunity that set the stage for the 2003 assassination of the country’s first post-Milosevic prime minister, Zoran Djindjic.

Serbia’s transition and its integration with the European Union was supposed to roll back the power of organised crime and its ties to the state, yet, experts warn, those ties have again become increasingly obvious under the ruling Serbian Progressive Party of President Aleksandar Vucic.

While the situation was bad under the governments that initially followed the fall of Milosevic in 2000, it is even worse now, said Sasa Djordjevic, field coordinator for Serbia and Montenegro at the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

He avoided the term ‘mafia state’, but told BIRN: “The difference is in intensity. We have no pluralism, independent institutions are less influential and affairs rarely end up in court. There’s also far less transparency in lucrative business deals than before.”

State-created crime gang

The Serbian crime gang Janjicari, or Janissaries, took its name from the elite Ottoman infantry units made up of Christian boys enslaved under the Ottoman Empire, converted to Islam and drafted into the army.

The gang took on another name, Principi – after Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and lit the fuse for World War One – but like the Ottoman Janjicari, the gang still served the state. That is, until February 4, when Serbian police arrested its leader, Veljko Belivuk, known as ‘Velja Trouble’, and a number of other members on suspicion of murder, extortion, kidnapping and drug dealing.

Formed in 2013, the Janjicari emerged from the fan base of Belgrade’s Partizan football club, growing in strength in parallel with the Progressive Party that entered government a year earlier and has since taken a grip on power to a degree not seen since the days of Milosevic.

The gang’s connections to state officials, including a former high-ranking police official and the current general secretary of the Progressive-led government, are well-documented.

Some members of the group served as hired thugs at Vucic’s inauguration as president in 2017,caught on camera manhandling journalists.

Vucic’s 23- year-old son, Danilo, has been photographed several times with various members of the Janjicari, including one who was among those arrested in the February 4 police operation.

When Janjicari leader Aleksandar Stankovic was shot dead in 2016, Belivuk took the reins. A year later, he was charged with involvement in the murder of martial artist Vlastimir Milosevic in Belgrade, but was acquitted after DNA evidence was damaged.

Prosecutors now say Belivuk was behind at least three brutal murders of gang rivals, their bodies still to be found. The Janjicari had the run of the Partizan stadium, prosecutors say, with the use of a special ‘bunker’ for criminal acts. One of the two giants of Serbian football, alongside Belgrade rivals Red Star, Partizan is state-owned, its board of directors stuffed with political officials.

So far, three police officers have been arrested on suspicion of ties to the crime gang.

Former police officer Milan Dumovic said the members of the Janjicari believed they were above the law because the state stood behind them.

The state, he said, “created Belivuk, gave him power and at one point he thought he could do anything,” Dumovic told BIRN.

“The management of FC Partizan now say they were unaware of what was going on in their own stadium. But that’s ridiculous,” he said. “They were just afraid, because they knew the group was under state protection.”

Ultras as political party footsoldiers

Football ultras have been embedded in the Serbian criminal underworld since the 1990s, their numbers and muscle harnessed by nationalist political parties such as Milosevic’s Socialists and – since its founding in 2008 by defectors from the ultranationalist Radical Party – by Vucic’s Progressives.

When the Progressives took power in 2012, the hooligans appeared to be tamed, their regular attacks on LGBT Pride marches, for example, suddenly stopping.

But far from disbanding, the gangs simply entered into a pact with the Progressives, Dumovic said, demonstrated by the fact Vucic’s own son was repeatedly seen hanging out with members of the Janjicari.

“People from the security services, who by protocol protect Danilo Vucic, had to be familiar with his connections – for his own protection,” Dumovic told BIRN. “So they knew everything, but they didn’t react because they were told not to.”

The Janjicari had a direct line to the interior ministry via Dijana Hrkalovic, who until May 2019 was state secretary in the ministry.

A Progressive Party member, Hrkalovic climbed the state security ladder at a dizzying pace, moving from the state intelligence service to the post of deputy to then Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic in 2014, aged just 27. The following year Hrkalovic became secretary of the criminal police department, UKP, and then in 2017 state secretary of the Interior Ministry.

Hrkalovic’s meteoric rise was not hurt by the fact that she was widely believed to be close to Stankovic, Belivuk’s predecessor as leader of the Janjicari, and was in a relationship with Nenad Vuckovic, a senior member of the Serbian police’s Gendarmerie unit. Vuckovic was an official representative of the Partizan fan base and close friend of both Stankovic and Belivuk, a friendship captured on camera several times on the Partizan stands during games.

Read more at Balkan Insight

RiskScreen: Tackling Financial Crime with Smart Technology

You can claim CPD minutes for this content, by signing up to our CPD Wallet

FREE CPD Wallet