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Branding Serbia: Hooligans and extreme right parties

Thursday 14 October 2010, by siawi2

When my American friend came to Belgrade in January 2006 for the first time, he spotted numerous gang graffiti tags on the walls of the big dirty and beautiful capital. He was as keen to photograph them as he was the bridges, river scenes and bomb craters. As a veteran of American cities, he told us that gang-tags mattered.

We Belgrade insiders didn’t take him seriously: we told him, there are worse things going on in Serbia than youthful street toughs: war crimes, corruption, poverty...

Today, five years later, we can see why Belgrade’s hooligans mattered. Last night, in Genoa Italy, gangs cancelled the soccer game between Serbia and Italy, by rioting burning and beating people. They had just wreaked similar havoc in Belgrade, using the excuse of the Gay Pride Parade to attack the local police and political parties. Now that they have Schengen visas, Europe has become their gang-turf, too.

Only today, the Serbian Supreme Court is discussing urgently the need to prohibit fourteen soccer-fan ultra groups. Their names have been written on the walls of Belgrade for years now: the Belgrade Boys, North Army, Ultras... These loose groups of young bruisers, like similar fans everywhere, mostly beat up each other — but they were always the youth wing of the paramilitary, even since the days when Arkan owned the Red Star. They were always the eager foot-troops of the Serbian shadow establishment: for organized crime and demagogic politics. Today they proudly stand for homophobia, Serbian superiority, hatred against the other, and violence against the losers.

They make the ideal target for political manipulation: with some kind of luck, respect, a little money or promises of power, these Belgrade boys, soccer hooligans or just teens from the depressed provinces are ready to give their lives for fifteen minutes of glory. Often they do. Two years ago one of them accidentally burned himself to death inside the American Embassy.

There is one great distinction, though. Unique among Europe’s soccer hooligans, these Serbian groups in Genoa attacked the Serbian soccer team first. No Serbians sports team will ever be tough enough or nationalistic enough for “fans” who are right-wing culture warriors. These gangs will hold up a three-finger sign while beating up their own sports heroes. They have such a privileged position in Serbia that they even have the astonishing luxury of publicly beating up Serbia’s police, by the dozen, in the streets of the nation’s capital city. Mere teens can never beat up trained police with impunity. The Gay Power Parade and its ugly backlash were a kind of civil-rights tournament in which the police were chosen to bleed.

Naturally, this second act of intimidation in Genoa was timed to coincide with the appearance of Hillary Clinton in Belgrade and the Deciison of Holland whether to approve of Serbia joining EU. These disturbances are not unruly eruptions of popular sentiment. They are pageantry, just like spray-painted gang-tags: huge, gaudy, obvious to anybody, and deliberately overlooked by people who don’t think they ought to care. Serbia’s covert establishment is still carrying on its same long struggle, just by modern means. It’s about flares, bolt-cutters and television now, when it used to be about jeeps, mortars and television. But it’s always been about television; since Milosevic no longer controls a captive screen, the Radicals have to grab screen-time from alarmed and puzzled Italians.

You can bet that Europe’s police, long inured to British soccer hooligans, will be all over these new Serbian marauders. Most of them are already known to the serbian police. The violent British fans also have a nationalist and fascist tinge, but their major difference is that the British want the British to win. Serbian soccer hooligans, by complete contrast, are keen to attack Serb athletes and damage the Serbian state. They’re in the business of remaining outlaws and outcasts, as they’ve been for a long generation. Every damage to Serbian prestige in sports suits the interests of their sponsors in the monopolies, drugs, arms, and human-trafficking rackets. It’s not about winning; it’s all about staying underground. And it’s not only about a loathing for gays; it’s all about covert power. The old negative branding of Serbia advances in parallel with the new positive one.

United Europe and the United States want to soothe the trouble-making small nation in the midst of Europe, by offering them carrots after the sticks of cruise missiles. But history is made on the streets, not just in the chambers of diplomacy. History is written by the winners, and the winners often cannot write. But they all have cellphones now. As well as big flat-screen televisions.

We are witnessing today a globalization of Balkanization. A new language and new method of violence runs beyond the older ideas which once inspired them. A soccer field was always a place of competition and strong national feelings. With television, it’s a giant billboard for culture-war.