Under Aleksandar Vucic’s Progressives, the line between the state and organised crime has become increasingly blurred, raising the question – is Serbia a mafia state?
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.
In 2016, then interior minister Stefanovic acknowledged that Vuckovic worked for the police, but said that being a football fan was not a crime and that he had passed a security check before joining the force.
In 2017, the union of the Serbian army accused Vuckovic of the repeated illegal use of an army shooting range, army weapons and ammunition for target practice in 2016 with Stankovic and Belivuk, both of whom had multiple convictions for violent crime.
According to the union, a fourth man was on the firing range with them – Novak Nedic, the current general secretary of the Serbian government.
The military police conducted an investigation but charges against those responsible for the shooting range were eventually dropped after evidence went missing, according to a 2018 report by the Belgrade-based Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, KRIK.
Dumovic traces his own dismissal from the police force to a decision he says was taken by Hrkalovic to send him and a number of other police officers on an undercover mission in 2015 to Potocari in neighbouring Bosnia, where Vucic was attending a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre when some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces. The mission went ahead without the cover of a court order or any official paperwork.
Dumovic and another officer were arrested by Serbian police for disclosing information on the undercover mission and later dismissed.
Both the arrest and the dismissal have been called unlawful, the former by Serbia’s ombudsman and the latter by the Administrative Court in Belgrade. The case is ongoing.
Hrkalovic was fiercely loyal to Vucic, describing him in an October 2020 interview as “a man above all of us in his genius”.
She had left the interior ministry in May 2019 under unclear circumstances. During Hrkalovic’s time at the ministry, police made a point of pursuing members of the ‘Skaljari’ crime gang from neighbouring Montenegro, who were at war with another Montenegrin mafia group – the ‘Kavac’. The Kavac gang was affiliated with the Janjicari.
In recent weeks tabloids close to the Progressive-led government have started reporting on Hrkalovic’s ties to the criminal underworld, usually the sign that an official has become a burden to the party. She has not responded publicly to any of the accusations against her.
Indeed, Hrkalovic was linked to another scandal that the government has scrambled to contain – the November 2019 discovery of weapons, hi-tech anti-surveillance hardware and 12 hectares of marijuana plants behind the tomatoes, cucumbers and onions of the Jovanjica organic farm.
Serbia’s interior ministry is usually quick to take credit for major drug seizures, but kept quiet about the Jovanjica discovery for several days until the press got word of it.
It turns out that the marijuana production enjoyed the support of at least five members of the Serbian police, military and security services who – according to an indictment – provided Jovanjica owner Predrag Koluvija with a fake police badge and licence plates, valuable insider information and muscle to guard the plantation.
The officers who furnished Koluvija with the police licence plates both worked under Hrkalovic, a fact prosecutors never questioned her on.
Investigators did discover, however, that Koluvija had been in direct contact in 2016 with Interior Ministry state secretary Milosav Milickovic, the deputy head of the Progressive Party’s Belgrade board. In 2018, Koluvija took part in investment projects with the government’s department for Kosovo and donated money to an agricultural college in an ethnic Serb area of the former Serbian province.
For the Serbian public, however, most eye-catching was the flow of high-profile guests through Koluvija’s farm, including, in 2015, Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, then the minister for social affairs, accompanied by Dragan Sikimic, then the deputy director of the National Employment Service and now director of Serbia’s Anti-Corruption Agency and, in 2016, senior Progressive Party official Zoran Babic.
Elek, of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, said the Jovanjica case was of huge significance, laying bare the extent of state involvement in an illicit drug operation.
Noting that one of Koluvija’s lawyers is senior Progressive Party MP Vladimir Djukanovic, Elek said the Janjicari arrests and the accompanying declaration of ‘war’ on crime looked like an attempt to distract public attention from Jovanjica.
“I think that is the story the public needs to focus on the most,” Elek said. “It could not be done without state support.”
Dumovic agreed, speculating that Koluvija’s operation fell only because of a turf war within the Progressive Party itself.
“No one would start such an operation without support from the top,” he said.
In Serbia, ‘feudal’ rules apply
Taking power in Serbia in 2012, the Progressive Party had to also stamp its control over a majority-Serb pocket of northern Kosovo as Belgrade’s last remaining foothold in the predominantly ethnic Albanian former province that declared independence in 2008.
To do so, the party enlisted the help of two men long suspected by Serbian security services of involvement in organised crime – Milan Radoicic and Zvonko Veselinovic.
Both men are currently considered suspects by Kosovo authorities in the 2018 murder of Kosovo Serb opposition politician Oliver Ivanovic.
The evidence against them has not been made public, but in an interview with BIRN, published after his death, Ivanovic identified Radoicic as the real power in the Serb-majority north, an area where crime flourished in the limbo that followed the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
Ivanovic had been under pressure for years, his car and party offices set on fire and his apartment broken into. In 2014, on the same date – January 16 – that Ivanovic died four years later, his best man, local councillor Dimitrije Janicijevic was murdered.
Like Ivanovic, Veselinovic was a ‘bridge-watcher’, one of a group of Serbs assigned to guard the bridge over the Ibar river that divides mainly Serb north Mitrovica from the mainly Albanian south of the town.
When ethnic violence broke out in 2011, Veselinovic later claimed that Vucic had called him to say that the Progressives – then in opposition but on the cusp of power – were behind him.
This, despite that fact that for years both Veselinovic and Radoicic were in the sights of the Serbian police and state intelligence agency BIA, suspected of smuggling drugs, weapons and oil via north Kosovo as well as money-laundering and loan sharking, KRIK reported in 2011.
Shortly after the fall of Milosevic in 2001, Veselinovic was named in a internal Serbian police document on organised crime and described as the organiser of a group involved in aggravated theft, car theft, extortion and forgery. He was arrested in 2003 for heroin trafficking but was acquitted in 2006.
Radoicic, meanwhile, was accused of kidnapping a Macedonian businessman in 2009 but was acquitted after the victim changed his statement on the last day of the trial, KRIK reported.
His chequered past did not stop Radoicic from becoming deputy leader of Srpska Lista, the main Kosovo Serb political party backed by the Progressives, in July 2018, six months after Ivanovic’s murder.
Both men have developed considerable business holdings thanks, in part, to their involvement in state-backed projects.
While Vucic has denied any ties to the pair, in 2019 BIRN published photographs of Radoicic and Veselinovic with the president’s best man, Nikola Petrovic, and of Veselinovic with Vucic’s brother, Andrej, at the headquarters of the Progressive Party.
Vucic has nevertheless defended Radoicic, dismissed any suggestion he was involved in the murder of Ivanovic by citing a polygraph test, which is not admissible in court.
“Milan Radoicic is no flower, but he did not participate in any way in the liquidation” of Ivanovic, Vucic told a press conference in mid-2019.
Radoicic has also denied any wrongdoing. He evaded an attempt by Kosovo police special forces to arrest him in Mitrovica in November 2018. Police said they instead found 75 grams of cocaine in his home.
Elek said the relationship between Veselinovic, Radoicic and Vucic was clear.
“He [Vucic] instrumentalised criminals to give him the north of Kosovo and the influence down there,” Elek told BIRN. “Like everyone whom he uses, he protects them. It’s a kind of feudal principle – a certain group gets territory, and they need to show loyalty.”
Vucic and the Progressives came to power in 2012 on a promise to root out organised crime and corruption.
The arrest of the Janjicari gang was part of the state’s war on crime, Vucic said on February 9, vowing to expose every state official who had aided the group.
Ana Brnabic, whom Vucic picked as his successor as prime minister in 2017 when he moved to the post of president, described the arrests as “the biggest blow to organised crime since Operation Sablja [Sabre],” the dragnet launched by the Serbian state following the assassination of Djindjic in 2003 and which saw more than 11,000 people arrested.
Djindjic was shot dead by a sniper working with a group of former paramilitary police officers and mafia members.
When the Janjicari were netted, Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin said police had found a sniper rifle, and suggested they may have been planning to assassinate Vucic.
“I don’t know if that was the case, the investigation will determine the motives, but the only man whose death would stop the fight against the mafia would be Aleksandar Vucic,” Vulin said on February 6.
The statement was the latest in a long line of claims by state officials and pro-government media concerning the threat of a coup d’état and an attack on the president.
Experts, however, are far from convinced.
Elek said Vucic liked to represent himself as under threat “in order to change the perspective of the reality among the voters.”
“I think this arrest was timed,” he told BIRN.
“Everyone knew for years what Belivuk’s group was up to. It wasn’t a secret even for ordinary people.”
Elek also urged assuming Belivuk would be convicted. “Despite the campaign against him by pro-government tabloids, we should wait for the final court verdicts. We’ve heard these announcements before, and then nothing happened.”
Muddying the waters further, in a newspaper interview at the turn of the year, Vucic claimed his telephone conversations had been tapped and that he was in possession of the tapes.
Security experts said it was possible he had simply been in contact with people who were the target of police wiretaps. Prosecutors nevertheless moved to investigate Vucic’s claims, interrogating, among others, Hrkalovic.
Elek said the president’s story seemed far-fetched.
“We cannot believe Vucic because he is constantly creating pseudo-events,” he said. “I think the situation got out of his hands and he is cleaning up.”