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Investigation 30 Nov 12

Political Football: The Balkans’ Belligerent Ultras Avoid Penalties

Hooligans in Macedonia stoke the embers of ethnic strife, and – like their Serbian counterparts – often escape punishment.

Aleksandar Manasiev
BIRN
Skopje, Belgrade and Glasgow

Nikola says the Komiti boys were defending their turf, but Blerim says the turf was not theirs to defend. Nikola says the Komiti were heavily outnumbered. Blerim says they hid behind the police.

Nikola and Blerim are in their late teens. They belong to rival gangs of football fans whose rivalry has little to do with football.

Last year, the two groups attacked each other in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, far away from any stadium or sporting fixtures.

Supporters of Vardar Skopje celebrate their team's victory.

They fought in a medieval fortress perched above the city centre, bringing stones and knives to defend faith and nationhood – suitable causes for the setting, even if it was built with bigger battles in mind.

“This is a real war,” says Blerim, a talkative, skinny 17-year-old with a precocious interest in politics. He belongs to the Sverceri, or “Smugglers”, a band of football fans whose members come from Skopje’s minority ethnic Albanian population.

“At the stadium, we fight with words,” he says. “On the street, we fight with fists. We defend our national identity with our blood.”

Nikola, also 17, belongs to the Komiti, a group of hardcore football supporters, or ultras, whose members come from Skopje’s majority Macedonian community.

“When will they stop dishonouring us?” he asks of the ethnic Albanians who had blocked an attempt to build a church-shaped structure in the fortress. “No one destroys a church in our Orthodox country!”

Football fans are known for brawling and bravado in the stands – but the ultras of the Balkans have also flexed their muscle for political masters.

During the wars of the 1990s, the terraces of the top clubs delivered recruits to paramilitary units across the former Yugoslavia. Most notorious of these were the Tigers, a militia formed largely from Red Star Belgrade hooligans and commanded by the gangster, Zeljko Raznatovic – better known as Arkan.

The old militia bosses have since been killed or dispatched to war crimes courts, but the region’s new generation of  ultras still enjoys notoriety – and a reach that extends far beyond the terraces, into society and politics.

Serbia’s hooligans have rioted in protest against gay rights parades, and were recently in the news for racially abusing the players of England’s under-21 team.

Outbreaks of hooliganism often follow political skirmishes in Macedonia, which stepped back from the brink of civil war just over a decade ago.

The country is now governed by a fractious coalition of nationalist parties that rely on each other’s support – but are bitter rivals in every other sense. Ethnicity defines the country’s politics, as sharply as it divides its ultras.

Exchanges in parliament have set the tone for confrontations in the stadium, and on the streets. The fortress clash between the Komiti and the Sverceri, for instance, was triggered by a row between the coalition parties.

Are the ultras a convenient tool for Macedonia’s feuding politicians? Or are they simply a channel for male aggression and ethnic animosity?

Several experts told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) that politicians and football-fan associations are locked in a symbiotic relationship, where patronage is traded for endorsement.

The big political parties do indeed have historic ties with football clubs and their supporters. But they deny any links with the most violent ultras – and BIRN found no evidence to suggest these links exist.

Nevertheless, interviews with fans across the ethnic divide reveal that they regard themselves as the foot soldiers of the nationalist causes that dominate politics.

Though some fans claim to fear the courts, their violence often escapes serious sanction. Where the hooligans of western Europe have been stigmatized, the ultras of Macedonia generally expect their activities to enhance their status.

“The doors of local government, companies and political parties are always open to us,” said a 22-year-old from the city of Tetovo, and a leader of the Ballisti, supporters of the FK Shkendija football club.

Although he has faced several charges of violent behaviour, including involvement in an attack on a police officer, the leader claims he has never spent more than 10 days in custody.

Heirs to the gunmen

Macedonia emerged largely unscathed from the Balkans wars of the 1990s – but in 2001, the country looked as if it might become yet another casualty of Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse.

The ethnic Albanian minority make up a quarter of the population, and had long complained of discrimination. Emboldened by the defeat of Serbian forces in neighbouring Kosovo, ethnic Albanian guerillas fought skirmishes against an army dominated by the ethnic-Macedonian majority. The violence escalated, towns were divided and thousands of people were displaced.

An internationally brokered peace deal, the Ohrid accord, halted the violence in 2001 and granted the ethnic Albanians greater autonomy and authority. The guerrillas entered the government as coalition partners.

Below the surface, however, tensions simmered. Much of the country is effectively partitioned between the two communities. Many Macedonians believe the ethnic Albanians have taken more than their fair share from the peace deal. The ethnic Albanians, on the other hand, accuse the Macedonians of steadily undermining the Ohrid accord.

THE COST OF ULTRA-VIOLENCE

In 2011, the Macedonian interior ministry recorded 112 disturbances of the peace in and around sporting events.

At least 12 referees, 11 police officers, 10 fans, five players, two motorists and a bodyguard were injured in attacks that were blamed on hooligans. Ultras were also blamed for damaging nine cars.

A total of 15 fans faced criminal charges as a result. The police also filed 98 misdemeanour charges against fans.

The figures above do not include arrests related to the clash at the fortress.

And where provocative rhetoric has given way to street-fighting, the ultras have been at the frontline. 

Macedonian football supporters routinely accuse their rivals of acting hand-in-glove with politicians. Ethnic Albanians fans level exactly the same charge at the Macedonians. Both sides deny each other’s accusations.

Lazar Nanev, a senior judge who has prosecuted many hooligans, says it is hard to prove a two-way link between politicians and violent ultras. However, many leading fans do seek political patronage.

“Some of them want to be identified with political parties in order to achieve personal benefit or privilege,” he said. “It is one of the most dangerous things in our society.”

Ivan Anastasovski, an academic and former board member of the Macedonian football federation, says parties across the political divide believe it is in their best interests to maintain good ties with the fans.

“They see them as a potential base for voters and activists during the elections,” he says.

In return for mobilising support, fan leaders end up with coveted jobs in the public sector, where careers can be boosted by close links with the governing parties.

“Leaders of the Macedonian and ethnic Albanian [fan] groups get good positions in state institutions, the customs administration, the parties, the government,” says Mitre Trajkovski, a former police major who was also a security commissioner in the football federation.

The ultras’ nationalism may not be openly sanctioned by the politicians – but nor does it appear to harm their prospects. Many groups brazenly lionize men who fought in the region’s conflicts more than a decade ago.

The stands where Komiti members watch their team, Vardar Skopje, are often bedecked with banners in support of Johan Tarculovski, a onetime leader of the ultras who is currently serving a prison term for war crimes. He was convicted by the Hague tribunal for the murder in 2001 of seven ethnic Albanians.

Supporters of the Ballisti, meanwhile, hero-worship ethnic Albanian rebels. This May, a delegation of the ultras travelled to neighbouring Kosovo to pay their respects at a shrine to Adem Jashari, a guerrilla leader killed in 1998. He is regarded as a terrorist by many Serbs.

Riot police in Skopje try to keep the peace at matches between the top teams.

Hardcore fans take to the streets whenever political tensions rise. After a gruesome cycle of murders this spring that were blamed on ethnic animosity, Komiti members protested against Islamic radicalism. The Ballisti joined counter-protests in ethnic Albanian neighbourhoods.

Last year’s clash at the fortress erupted after the main Macedonian party in the coalition, VMRO-DPMNE, ordered the construction of a church-like structure where the remains of an earlier church had been found.

The construction site lay within Skopje’s fortress, in an area that the ethnic Albanians regard as their historic home within the capital. Leaders from the ethnic Albanian party in the coalition, DUI, criticised the plan for an apparently Christian structure in their part of town, and young men from the community tried to stop work at the site.

Macedonians marched to the fortress in protest, with a contingent of Komiti fans, mobilised through internet forums and Facebook, leading the way. There they were met by a crowd of ethnic Albanians – including the Sverceri.

In the ensuing fight, Blerim and Nikola saw themselves as heirs to the men who had waged war more than a decade ago.

“I will not allow what he fought for to go to waste,” says Blerim, referring to his father, who was with the ethnic Albanian guerrillas in 2001.

Nikola’s brother was a soldier in the Macedonian military at the time. “The [Albanians] said they were fighting for human rights – but instead they fought for the creation of a Greater Albania,” he says.

Courting trouble

When the dust had settled after the fight at the fortress, the police rounded up the suspects. Fifty-four fans were taken into custody – 27 of them from the Komiti, and exactly the same number from the Sverceri.

A dozen fans had been injured, along with four policemen. However, no one went to jail.

The arrested fans were not required to attend their trials. The judgments were swift and the penalties identical – a three-month suspended sentence, conditional upon good behaviour. In effect, the fans would escape incarceration as long as they kept out of trouble for the next two years.

In the eyes of the law, it seemed both groups were equally guilty and each member of the group bore an equal share of the blame. The rulings may have reflected the difficulty of establishing individual guilt in an outbreak of mob violence.

But the tidiness of the verdicts also raised eyebrows, and led some to speculate that the courts had been overly mindful of the political sensitivity of the case.

A member of the Komiti, refusing to be quoted by name, repeated the allegation – heard from both groups of fans – that the courts were biased in favour of rival supporters.

However, he says, the decision to sentence both sides simultaneously had worked to the Komiti’s advantage, as they were able to share in the leniency allegedly shown towards Sverceri.

“We are happy we went on trial with them because otherwise we would have received tougher penalties,” he says.

The criminal court in Skopje denies handing down lesser penalties because of political sensitivities. “We do not make political decisions,” a spokesman told BIRN. “We judge according to the laws alone.”

Sasa Todorovic of the Belgrade police says the ultras have a rigid hierarchy.

Observers say football clubs supported by Macedonians and ethnic Albanians have a long history of involvement with the major parties.

This is partly a reflection of the country’s intensely politicised society, where political affiliation shapes many aspects of business and cultural life.

Fans from the Komiti, for instance, formed the backbone of the youth wing of VMRO-DPMNE during the 1990s.

Today however, the ultras say they do not receive any favours or funding from politicians. The Komiti’s written code of conduct, circulated in booklet form, says it welcomes members from across the political spectrum – from anarchists to ultra-nationalists and everyone in between. The booklet insists political affiliations must be left at the door. There must be no division within the ranks.

“Our group includes supporters of several political parties, but we are not an extension of them,” says a senior Komiti member.

Like most of his comrades, he declined to be named because of the Komiti’s strict prohibition against talking to journalists.

The leaders of ethnic Albanian fan groups were also wary of being quoted by name – but were candid about the advantages of their status.

A leader of the Ballisti from the town of Tetovo said he did not believe his many brushes with the law would hamper his prospects. However, he says, most fans who end up in trouble have to tread carefully.

“Supporting football clubs can help us get a job – but the problems with the police are the other side the coin. If you are convicted and have a criminal record, there may be consequences in the future.”

Another leader of the Ballisti, speaking on condition of anonymity, claims he only faced a small fine after his trial for assault.

“If they had judged me in another country, I could easily have got a serious prison sentence,” he says.

He says his friends have also got off lightly for violent offences, often without even bothering to attend their trials. Most such cases resulted in suspended sentences or fines, he added.

A statue of Glasgow Celtic's legendary manager, Jock Stein, at the team's stadium.

While the links between the ultras and the political parties are at best informal, there is a clearer connection between the parties and the clubs.

Partly a product of history, these links may also be a product of financial necessity. Unlike clubs in the West, barely any Macedonian sides can be regarded as successful, profitable businesses. They do not recoup their running costs through revenues alone. Tickets are cheap and there is little demand from broadcasters for the TV rights to games.

Instead, the clubs depend heavily on sponsors for their survival. As well as attracting the usual interest from wealthy businessmen, many of the clubs draw funds from the local government.

BIRN has found no evidence to suggest that money given from the public purse ends up with the ultras.

However, Ivon Velichkovski, a leader of the opposition Liberal party, says there may – in some cases – be an indirect link.

Clubs have been known to subsidise their supporters’ groups, offering them cheap tickets or discounts on trips to away games. According to Velichkovski, this creates an indirect link between the fans and whichever political party happens to control the local government.

“Some fan groups are dependent upon the local governments, which in turn are run by the ruling parties,” he says.

Bravado replaces violence

North of Macedonia lies Serbia, where the links between football hooligans and the parties in government have weakened since their heyday in the 1990s.

Unlike Skopje, Belgrade is not an ethnically divided city. With fewer nationalist conflicts to divert their attention since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia’s most powerful ultras have focused on organized crime, using hooliganism as a cover.

A football fan in Belgrade inspects a slogan demanding freedom for jailed ultras.

Sasa Todorovic, the chief officer responsible for sports-related violence with the Belgrade police, says the criminal gangs mimic the hierarchy of his force. “There are different ranks from commanders to watchmen, and everyone has a role to play,” he says.

The central districts of Belgrade are covered in graffiti proclaiming, “Freedom for the Fans” – a reference to the many ultras currently in prison on charges of racketeering, arson, drug trafficking and murder.

“They claim they are motivated by patriotism, by the state or religion, but they only work for financial benefit,” says Milan Stanic, chief of Serbia’s Public Order Department.

As in Macedonia, many believe that the courts grant violent fans greater leniency. Stanic describes the case of a supporter of the Partizan club, who had struck an opposing fan in the groin with a baseball bat.

“He received a suspended sentence of one year in prison. I doubt if such a penalty will be a corrective to him – or a deterrent to others,” he says.

Just as ultras across the world claim inspiration from the notorious British hooligans of the 1980s, many law enforcement officials look to modern Britain as a model for tackling violent fans.

Glasgow is home to the Rangers and Celtic football clubs, supported respectively by the city’s Protestant and Catholic communities. Hardcore fans of both clubs have often cast their sporting rivalry in sectarian terms.

The local police can draw on a variety of laws customised to tackle hooligans. Over time, they say, the punishments have helped prevent violence.

“There are heavy fines against fans who break the laws,” a spokesman for Strathclyde Police says. “We even demand bans on going to the stadium.”

Asked how they would respond to a mass brawl such as the one at the Skopje fortress, the spokesman said the force would try to reach a solution with partners from both communities, consulting everyone from priests to politicians, the municipality and the clubs themselves.

On the terraces however, some claim that the British police have gone too far.

“The expression of national identity is being criminalised,” says Jeanette Findlay, chairwoman of the Celtic Trust, citing how many traditional songs have been banned from the stadium. “A boy in Edinburgh was arrested for aggressively blessing himself.”

Dougie Brimson, a writer on hooliganism, acknowledges that the British authorities have tackled much of the worst violence. But he warns that their draconian approach ultimately poses a threat to everyone’s civil liberties.

“It is now legal for the police in the UK to take away a passport from someone they suspect might cause trouble at football aboard,” he says. “They do not even need evidence! That is wrong. Very wrong.”

As a result of the crackdown, Brimson says the violence of the hooligan scene has been replaced by noisy bravado. Nevertheless, he believes men will continue to be tempted by hooliganism’s promise of a “second family”.

 

Aleksandar Manasijev is a Skopje-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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The recipients of this year’s fellowship are considering subjects as diverse as hooliganism, activism and migration in search for employment – all under the broader theme of “communities”. Read more about the project on the official Fellowship web site >>