Beograd, Džordža Vašingtona, June 2022

Serbia’s already radicalized far right seems to be spinning out of control. Graffitis featuring pictures or the name of Ratko Mladić are being sprayed on walls on an unprecedented scale. Most people seem to shrug off this open reverence for the butcher of Srebrenica.

19.

19 along Beograd’s central Džordža Vašingtona Street, between the corners of Takovska and Cetinska Street.

19 graffiti glorifying Ratko Mladić in name or image on a few hundred meters.

19 I saw and documented.

That makes one glorification of the butcher of Srebrenica roughly every 30 meters or so. That’s even taking into account that the street has two sides, of course.

I am sure I missed some. I may have subconsciously even wanted to. Mladić’s face is enough to make me want to shake in anger.

Most of them had been sprayed over by antifa, antinationalists and other decent folk, but not all.

There were some occasional portraits and graffiti with his name on other streets. Nothing I had seen so far came close to Džordža Vašingtona.

Mladić, then commander of the Serb nationalist Army of Republica Srpska, ordered the murder of more than 8.000 Muslim boys and men after the surrender of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

The massacre has been ruled a genocide Mladić has been convicted of by the ICTY. He serves a life sentence.

This Is Unprecedented

None of these graffiti had been around a year before when I last visited Serbia’s capital.

Sure, there had been some Mladić images or some such in the outer perimeters of the city, with the notable exception of one mural in the city center. A handful by comparison. The Serbian daily Danas covered it in mid November.

This proliferation is a very recent phenomenon, and it’s a troubling one.

According to the independent and critical outlet Nova.rs, it seems to have started some time in December – and even what Nova reported, pales in comparison to what is documented in this article.

The same goes for this piece by the local language service of Euronews.

The equivalent would be swastikas being painted on every other building in a street somewhere in the city center of Vienna or Berlin.

This simply does not happen, which is not to say that there aren’t any problems with organized neo-Nazis and other right wing extremists in these cities.

We should not kid ourselves: Reverence for Mladić has been deemed at least somewhat acceptable in Serbia for as long as I have been visiting the country.

On the first visit where I took photos, in 2016, I took some of a souvenir vendor on Terazije right in front of famed Hotel Moskva selling T-shirts with his portraits, alongside those of Tito and of Draža Mihailović, Yugoslavia’s WW II Četnik leader with several massacres against thousands of Bosnian Muslims to his name, besides actively fighting Tito’s Partisans much more than the fascist occupiers of Yugoslavia.

It wasn’t even that bad last September in Banja Luka, the capital of Serb dominated Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two sub-states called entities, whose troops Mladić had commanded during the war in Bosnia in the 90s.

Serb nationalists there have never made a secret of their love of Mladić, and there is plenty of them in Republika Srpska.

Serb nationalism is the founding doctrine of RS, and even though that doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of Serbs in the RS are nationalists, it permeates and dominates this statelet’s political system more now than at any time in the past 30 years.

It’s Even Worse in Zvezda-Land

Just hours after taking the photos I met an old friend in a restaurant on Maksima Gorka Street, a bit off the city center.

“Yes, it is disgusting”, he said, visibly unhappy about this development, but not looking overly alarmed. “It’s the same on Južni Bulevar”, he added.

That street being right around the corner from the restaurant, I decided to head back to the center this way.

If anything, it was worse.

(Note: The footage in this video has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity. All graffiti seen here have been filmed the same day on Južni Bulevar between the corners of Maksima Gorka and Nebojšina streets, a part that is perhaps 200 meters long.)

There are many more graffiti in honor of the butcher of Srebrenica all over the city, though not in such high density as in those two locations here.

Južni Bulevar has always been the territory of the fans of Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Beograd, one of two leading football clubs in Serbia.

Zvezda’s ultras are basically nationalist to outright fascist hooligans, and have been for the past 30 years.

Delije, one of the most fanatical of Zvezda’s hooligan fan clubs, was run by Arkan in the 90’s. Arkan was a Serbian mobster, nationalist and war criminal with close ties to the regime of Slobodan Milošević.

Zvezda’s ultras fan clubs have maintained close ties to Serbia’s security apparatus ever since.

These are the people who will chant “Nož, žica, Srebrenica” every time Zvezda or the Serbian national football team play a team with players of Bosnian Muslim or Albanian roots.“ Knife, wire, Srebrenica”. There couldn’t be a more direct reference to Mladić’s greatest crime.

Yet, until a few months ago, even Zvezda ultras didn’t use templates to spraypaint Mladić’s face all over town. And certainly not in what is clearly a coordinated effort.

Suspecting Football Ultras Isn’t A Stretch at All

Could it be that this was a new, more provocative, way of hooligans and ultras marking their territories? Another friend suggested this to me over a beer later that evening. “This isn’t “the Serbian people” spraying Mladić”.

He did not like recent developments either, but seemed to almost shrug them off as the inevitable and preliminary climax of an escalation – not fully appreciating how much of an escalation this was.

It was also this friend who reminded me of the close ties between Serbia’s radical football fan clubs, who also dominate organised crime, and have huge influence on the country’s security apparatus and politics.

It’s not much of a stretch to think that radical football ultras take part in a coordinated nationalist and neofascist escalation.

Last week saw the Partisan Cemetery in the Bosnian town of Mostar being vandalized. 700 plaques commemorating Partisans killed in WW II had been smashed up by Neo-Ustaša.

In divided Mostar, the ultras fan club of the predominantely Western part of the city is one of the primary recruiting tools for Croat nationalists and neofascists, as I reported myself a few years ago.

I have no evidence that the “West Mostar Crew” were involved in the attack on the Cemetery as no suspects have been arrested in this case. In Mostar however, the involvement of at least some of them is an open secret.

This well researched reportage by Balkan Insight casts a light on how deeply ingrained nationalism and hate are with many football ultras clubs on the Balkans.

There is other details pointing to Zvezda ultras as being the main culprits for actually spraying the portraits on walls.

I saw none of these portraits in the centers of Kragujevac and Novi Sad. There may have been some, but I certainly didn’t see them.

None of these towns seem to have a very strong Zvezda fan base – although some of the ultras of Radnićki Kragujevac certainly do toy with Četnik imagery and symbols.

Contrast that with Subotica, a Hungarian majority town in Northern Serbia.

Zvezda fans there have marked their corners. Delije have a local chapter here.

And guess what, Mladić resurfaces, although sprayed after a different template.

Football, the State, the Far Right (And Organised Crime)

Some other friends I talked to about this also suggested that this recent orgy of genocide glorification could not have happened without some sort of approval by the regime of Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić.

To be fair, conspiracy theories abound on the Balkans, and the always end up with someone in charge being ultimately responsible for everything and anything. In this sense, these rumors do not mean anything much, plausible though they may sound.

They are at any rate the price Vučić pays for his all dominant role in national politics and his near complete control over Serbia’s media – and the close ties of his regime to and reliance on radical football fan clubs.

And we can certainly say that Serbian police are not deadset against worshipping someone who has been convicted of orchestrating genocide.

This became clear in a travesty in November, with a mural with Mladić that had been painted on a corner in Beograd’s city center in the summer.

It was held in the style of the fan murals of Partizan Beograd, Zvezda’s rival club. It has never been confirmed that any Partizan fan club is behind it, however.

One of Partizan’s ultras clubs, Janjičari, has particularly close ties to Vučić’s regime, and namely Serbian security agencies.

Occasionally, Janjičari members serve as a sort of auxiliary police. They formed a security detail at Vučić’s first inauguration as President in 2017, manhandling protesters.

Like Zvezda’s Delije, they can be considered a part of organized crime. Just last year, some of their activities got so bad even their close ties with police could not save some Janjičari from arrest and prosecution.

Both Delije and Janjičari have congratulated Ratko Mladić to his birthdays.

Serbia’s outgoing Minister of the Interior, Aleksandar Vulin, personally saw to it that the Mladić mural in the city center was being well protected.

One activist, Aida Ćorović, was even arrested and detained for ten hours on a pretext in early November. She had thrown eggs against the mural.

In March, she was charged with public disturbance and tried. No verdict seems to have been delivered in the grotesque trial against her so far.

By now, Mladić’s image has been complemented by a mural of Četnik leader Draža Mihailović on the adjoining wall.

If that isn’t encouragement to paint all the town in Mladić portraits, I don’t know what is.

People Seem to See This as Inevitable

This may explain who did the actual spraying – it hardly explains the political rationale behind an obviously well coordinated campaign.

It’s hardly in the regime’s best interest to aggrevate Balkan and Western publics by allowing the portraits of the commander of the genocide of Srebrenica to dominate entire streets in Serbia’s capital.

Particularly not, since Serbia’s policy of playing the EU, China and Russia against one another has come under intense scrutiny after Russia started its war in the Ukraine – which will likely affect domestic policy. Vučić is set to oust the openly pro-Russian coalition parties of his clericonational party SNS from the government expected to form anytime soon after the recent elections in April.

That includes Interior Minister Vulin’s mini-party, the so called Socialist Movement.

Others have hinted that, perhaps, Russian intelligence is behind the proliferation of Mladić graffiti. There is no evidence for that.

Besides, such actions would risk alienating Serbia’s regime and make it move further away towards either the EU or China.

Nor does the open support for Mladić fan art by one part of Serbia’s regime – Interior Minister Vulin – and it being tolerated by another – President Aleksandar Vučić- explain why so far no one in Beograd I talked to seemed to be particularly alarmed about the scale this thing had reached already.

By far most people I talked to certainly didn’t appreciate it, most were appalled or embarrassed.

To them, it just looks like a nasty part of Serbia surfacing, in what appears to be an out of control escalation. Nothing that can be done about it.

Serbian media hardly reported on the issue at all – and if, they did not appear to be particularly alarmed at this escalation, with the notable exception of Nova.rs.

At any rate, by far most just seem to not notice the degree to which symbols in the public sphere have radicalized and to what extent they point at a radicalization of those who put these symbols there in the first place.

Living in Serbia does make one cynical, I suppose. Or emigrate.

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