The Belivuk case again reminds us of the clientelism of the Serbian state, additionally indicating that the Serbian judiciary will forever remain under political influence.
Recent events in Serbia tying political elites to organized crime figures and one (considerable) part of the so-called football fans yet again manifest how deeply troubling the said relationship between the two may be, showing that current Serbian political leadership continues to rely on the worst practices of the Milošević regime from the 1990s. Belivuk, the most prominent figure of a notoriously fierce hooligan (read: organized crime) group, “was arrested at the beginning of February along with other gang members. He was the leader of the so-called Janjicari, (Janissaries), later renamed “Principi”, a notorious crime gang hiding behind the persona of a football fan group.” Naturally, political elites have since vehemently denied accusations of their connections to the organized crime structures, repeatedly claiming these are rumors, lies, and jabs by political opposition.
Not shying away from keeping in close contact with hooligans and organized crime structures indicates two significant issues. On the one hand, current political leadership has not managed to move away from the very model the Milošević regime heavily relied on, and, on the other hand, there is no correctly functioning and, above all, independent judiciary nor signals that one may be established soon. In the 1990s, the Serbian regime was heavily clientelist, up to the point where football stadiums, most notably those of Crvena Zvezda and Partizan, became unofficial recruitment sites, providing paramilitaries from within the ranks of the clubs.
This model additionally included, and still very much does, ‘services’ that hooligans and the crime underworld provided the elites with, allowing for a nexus of private interests to supersede formal institutions and rules. Hence, the Western Balkan elites “continually bypass institutions and laws and govern through informal rules. Power is exercised through party dominance. Not only are state institutions captured, but the media are muzzled as well”, which is deeply problematic.
Apart from this troubling fact on the ties between political and state security structures and organized crime groups, what remains additionally worrisome is that there are mixed, confusing, and clumsy signals coming from both Serbian elites and judiciary on how to handle the said cases, the last of which is the Belivuk one. “The European Commission warned in October 2020 that “Serbia has yet to establish a convincing track record” of prosecutions and convictions of the criminal underworld,” which will undoubtedly remain an issue for Serbia for at least in the period of the Serbian Progressive Party being in control of the state apparatus.
There seems to be no evidence that the said party is willing to address numerous mishandlings of court cases against hooligans, most of which ended up unresolved, subject to political meddling, and falling short of respecting proper court proceedings. “The relationship between the state and football supporter groups has evolved into something like a working arrangement: in exchange for obedience on the streets, hooligans can pursue their business activities relatively unmolested.” Therefore, the Belivuk case again reminds us of the clientelism of the Serbian state, additionally indicating that the Serbian judiciary has for years now not been able to develop independently, forever remaining under the cloak of political influence and pressure.
Back to the Roarin’ Balkan 1990s
For all the hype by the current political elites about the rapid transformation of the country and a supposedly successful move away from the 1990s, the Serbian state continues to be run in a manner that was employed by the Milošević regime back in the day. If the opposite were the case, Serbia wouldn’t have remained a country where political connections of organized crime groups allowed both these groups and their counterparts within the political elites to profit from the said relationship. It seems oddly out of place for the current Serbian political leadership to claim that the country has moved forward without having addressed one of the biggest, if not the single biggest, domestic security threat. Organized crime structures and there is plenty of evidence on this issue from the 1990s, remain a potent player in domestic politics in Serbia.
First of all, it is unlikely they would operate without the state and security structures knowing and sanctioning it. Hence, their political connections (read: protection) have allowed them to remain intact and allowed them to ‘do their business.’ Second, drawing on the 1990s model, many who have joined criminal groups are in fact ‘recruited’ from the hooligan ranks according to Arkan’s recipe of being drawn ‘directly from the stands.’ Third, and this is the most disturbing fact, clientelism of the Serbian state continues to grow, showing the political elites have little intention or will to remodel the country, which brings us back to a point Strazzari, an Italian political scientist, made on the Western Balkans back in 2007. When discussing the Western Balkans domestic politics, he noted that there seemed to be an “intertwining of newly emerged, ethnically defined institutions, mafia-style war economies and elite connivance patterns.” I guess Serbia 2021 is an excellent example in this regard.
Last but not least, I am having a hard time finding the difference between mafiosi, hooligans, and politicians in Serbia. One day hooligans are hired to provide security services at one’s inauguration, the other they are said to be (surprise, surprise) engaged in the major drug trade, today some of them are sitting behind bars accused of horrific crimes, and, who knows, some may even become politicians in the future, seeing how rich political connections some of them have. There is little doubt in my mind that Serbian political leadership will continue to deny the said allegations on its ties with the criminal underworld, and I am sure that it will also refuse to deal with the problem at hand as it has been doing so far. Weak, far from independent, and politically influenced and run judiciary will continue to undermine the proper functioning of the Serbian state, which represents a long-term issue.
Independent Judiciary and Other (European) Fairytales
It is a pipe dream to believe that Serbia may enter the EU with the judiciary in its current form. Even leaving EU scenarios aside, Serbia can't become a truly democratic society with a judiciary of this sort. The fact that Serbian political elites have done everything but to help institute an increasingly independent and effective judicial system points out that there has been little, if any, political will to do so. Lacking the political will to create a judiciary that is professional and independent (and opposed to serving political goals) is a testament to how badly executed Serbian reforms have in this regard been. In addition, the political leadership has engaged in probably the worst thing it could have done: it has continued to undermine that very judicial system by constantly meddling in its affairs, as has been the Serbian tradition since the 1990s and the dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia.
The Belivuk case perfectly proves this point, with several somewhat strange and dubious twists and turns in recent months, with mishandling of evidence as well as several changes to witness testimonies. It is ironic to see the Serbian leadership’s talk on supposedly effective changes to the judiciary when this state institution has remained deeply flawed. The Serbian state has never actually attempted to rebuild the given institution by performing proper lustration of this apparatus, revealing how unprogressive Serbian state reforms have been.
Last of all, for all their hype of rebuilding the independent judiciary, the Serbian elites continue to weaken it by all sorts of public appearances that only ridicule the said system. For that matter, the Serbian president went on to say “that he and Internal Affairs Minister Aleksandar Vulin would be filing charges against themselves” in the Belivuk case, which not only sounds bizarre and preposterous but at the same time ridicules the very notion of justice. These public appearances by politicians have been tailored to refute allegations appearing in independent media and voiced by several figures from the underground against the political elite that rules Serbia today.
It is this sort of public appearance that send wrong messages about the state system to Serbian citizens, reveal how faulty that system is, and provide a grim picture of the political leadership that has nothing better to do but discuss high-profile crime cases. If the Serbian judiciary were to work independently and adequately, it would file charges against anyone involved in the said affair, which is not the case herein.
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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.