Arrests Shake Up a Soccer Scene in Serbia Ruled by Gangsters and ‘Gravediggers’

BELGRADE — Shortly after arresting a man suspected of leading a criminal gang last month in connection with a series of killings involving beheadings and torture, Serbian police officers raided what they believe was the band’s secret lair: a bunkerlike room in the bowels of a stadium used by Partizan Belgrade, a storied soccer team in the Serbian capital.

The room, located in a defunct restaurant under the stands, has been sealed off as a crime scene after investigators hunting for evidence of ties between soccer hooligans and organized crime found weapons there.

The wall outside is daubed in white and black paint with the name that the Partizan fans use for themselves: “the Gravediggers.”

The name is well deserved. Serbian soccer fans, at least those who in prepandemic days used to cram into the rowdy south stands of Partizan’s stadium and the equally anarchic north side of the arena used by its Belgrade archrivals, Red Star, have long had a reputation for extraordinary violence.

Partizan vice president who went public with accusations of government collusion with the arrested gang leader, has been savaged daily in tabloid newspapers supporting Mr. Vucic.

Ms. Brnabic denied the campaign was orchestrated by the government.

Also smeared by the tabloids has been Krik, a highly respected group of investigative journalists that has reported for years on links between government officials and Mr. Belivuk’s gang.

Stevan Dojcinovic, Krik’s editor in chief, said that organized crime in Serbia — and government officials — had long been tied to the “brutal force of nature” provided by soccer hooligans.

“Politicians have always been afraid of our hooligans. No matter who is in power they always form a partnership with them,” he said.

The difficulties of partnering with the hooligans, however, was made evident by the demise of Serbia’s former president, Slobodan Milosevic. Under his rule in the 1990s, hooligans flooded into the ranks of state-sponsored paramilitary groups that spread mayhem in Bosnia and Kosovo after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

That Mr. Milosevic, for whom Mr. Vucic served as information minister and whose security services worked closely with hooligans and criminals, was in serious trouble became clear when Red Star’s ultras started chanting “Slobodan Kill Yourself!” at games. (His parents had both died in suicides.)

Mr. Milosevic lost power in 2000 after the ultras led students and other protesters in storming the Parliament building in Belgrade.

When Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was then a part, began to unravel in the late 1980s, an early sign of impending war came in May 1990 when Red Star traveled for a game in Zagreb, the capital of the neighboring Yugoslav republic of Croatia. The game was suspended after rival fans staged a violent melee and set fire to the stadium.

Among the Red Star supporters who had traveled to Zagreb for the match was Mr. Vucic, who later boasted that he “often fought” at games.

Mr. Poledica, the chief of the soccer players’ association, said: “Our politicians always fear the stadium and its terrible power. They know that any dissatisfaction in the stadium can quickly spread to the street. They want to control it.”

He added that he did not know why the authorities had turned against Mr. Belivuk but speculated that Mr. Belivuk and his followers had gone too far. “Everyone knew they were violent, that they beat people and made threats. But cutting off heads?”

Mr. Belivuk’s lawyer, Dejan Lazarevic, said that his client had not yet been formally charged and that there was no evidence to support the accusations of murder, kidnapping and other serious crimes made against him by officials.

Mr. Vuletic, the professor, said that Mr. Belivuk and a hoodlum known as “Sale the Mute,” who has since been killed, first took control of the south part of Partizan’s stadium soon after Mr. Vucic became prime minister in 2014, and began beating up anyone chanting insults against him.

Suspicions that Mr. Belivuk had powerful friends in the government, or at least law-enforcement, have been growing since 2016, when he was arrested on murder charges but then released after DNA and other evidence against him either disappeared or had to be discarded because of tampering.

Krik, the investigative reporting group, later published photographs showing a member of Serbia’s gendarmerie, a police force, attending soccer games with Mr. Belivuk. At the time, the officer was in a relationship with a senior official responsible for the Interior Ministry.

This partnership with the government, said Mr. Dojcinovic, the Krik editor, broke down last year for unknown reasons, possibly because of an internal rift in Mr. Vucic’s governing Serbian Progressive Party, some of whose members have been caught up in the investigation into Mr. Belivuk.

Among those taken in for questioning by the police in connection with the case is Slavisa Kozeka, the president of the Football Association of Serbia. Mr. Kozeka, a senior official in the governing party, was earlier an activist in a far-right nationalist outfit that was led for years by a convicted war criminal.

All the bad publicity has infuriated peaceable Partizan fans like Vladimir Trikic. Walking around the central Belgrade district of Dorcol, he showed off murals of artists, theater directors and poets who have cheered on the club. Partizan, though closely tied to the former Yugoslav Army, he said, has “always been a team for intellectuals.”

For ordinary Partizan fans, Mr. Belivuk was never really a supporter but an impostor sent by Mr. Vucic to control and discredit his own team’s bitter rivals.

At a Partizan game in Belgrade last week, held before mostly empty stands because of the pandemic, Zoran Krivokapic was one of a handful of fans who managed to get into the stadium. He said that he had attended every home game for 47 years and blamed the rise and fall of Mr. Belivuk on what he said was a personal vendetta against Partizan by Mr. Vucic, the president.

“He wants to destroy Partizan and let Red Star rise,” he said.

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As Vaccinations Speed Along in Serbia, the Country Basks in the Glow of a Successful Campaign

BELGRADE — Stained for years by its brutal role in the horrific Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, Serbia is now basking in the glow of success in a good war: the battle to get its people vaccinated.

Serbia has raced ahead of the far richer and usually better-organized countries in Europe to offer all adult citizens not only free inoculations but a smorgasbord of five different vaccines to choose from.

By contrast, the European Union has stumbled badly in providing shots, with a disjointed procurement and distribution strategy that bet big on the AstraZeneca vaccine. That strategy hit a roadblock this week after key members of the bloc, including Germany and France, suspended inoculations with the vaccine over concerns it might increase the risk of blood clots, compounding delivery problems that stemmed from a production shortfall the company announced in January.

Serbia’s unusual surfeit of vaccines has been a public relations triumph for the increasingly authoritarian government of President Aleksandar Vucic. It has burnished his own as well as his country’s image, weakened his already beleaguered opponents and added a new twist to the complex geopolitics of vaccines.

OurWorldInData shows. It has administered 29.5 doses for every 100 people as of last week compared with just 10.5 in Germany, a country long viewed in this part of the world as a model of efficiency and good governance, and 10.7 in France.

Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, attributed her country’s success to its decision to “treat this as a health issue, not a political issue. We negotiated with all, regardless of whether East or West.”

applied to join the European Union more than a decade ago, still wants to join the bloc but added that “regulations in the E.U. are very strict. In pandemic times we need to be more flexible.”

The European Medicines Agency, which regulates what vaccines can be used in the bloc, started reviewing the Sputnik vaccine for use less than two weeks ago — more than three months after Serbia placed an initial order with Moscow for a million doses, and two months after rolling them out for general use. The agency has not yet even started reviewing Chinese vaccines.

Mr. Vucic announced last week that Serbia would become the first European country to start producing China’s Sinopharm vaccine. A new vaccine factory, financed by China and the United Arab Emirates, will start production in the fall, he said.

Serbia’s readiness to embrace non-Western vaccines so far shunned by the European Union could backfire if they turn out to be duds. Sinopharm, unlike Western vaccine makers, has not published detailed data from Phase 3 trials. Data it has released suggest its product is less effective than Western vaccines.

fill out a form online and select whether they don’t care what brand they get or if they prefer either Pfizer-BioNTech, Sputnik V, Sinopharm, AstraZeneca or Moderna.

Not all these vaccines, however, are equally available and appointments for a shot depend on the chosen option. Those wanting Moderna’s vaccine will be waiting a long time: it has not yet arrived in Serbia. The health ministry in Serbia had no immediate comment Tuesday on whether it would follow Germany and others and pause inoculations with AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

On a recent day at the country’s biggest vaccination center, at the Belgrade Fair, a sprawling exhibition complex in the Serbian capital, more than 7,000 people turned up for appointments.

Nearly all received China’s Sinopharm vaccine, which, according to clinical trials, has an efficacy rate of 79 percent, lower than that of Western and Russian vaccines.

50+ or 55+

60+ or 65+

Eligible only in some counties

Restaurant workers

Eligible only in some counties

High-risk adults

Over a certain age

Eligible only in some counties

There were also a few booths offering the Pfizer vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V but supplies of the Chinese offering were clearly far more plentiful.

What is available on any given day, said Dragana Milosevic, a doctor supervising the injections, varies depending on deliveries from a central government-run stockpile.

“I never expected it to be so easy,” said Biljana Stankovic, a 37-year-old molecular biologist, who, waiting to be called into a vaccination booth, said she did not care what she was given. She added that she did not share Mr. Vucic’s political views but “I’m glad and surprised that everything is so well organized.”

With the exception of Hungary, the only other European nation to embrace Sputnik V, European countries have tied themselves in knots over whether to use non-Western vaccines.

In Slovakia, the health minister was forced to resign last week over his decision to place an order for Sputnik V, which some fellow ministers denounced as a “tool of hybrid war.” Hungary has been widely accused of breaking European Union ranks and cozying up to Moscow by using Sputnik.

Serbia has taken delight in showing up the European Union not only at home but in the other states created by the collapse of Yugoslavia. Kosovo, which put its vaccine hopes in help from the European bloc, has so far received no vaccines, other than those provided by Serbia, which started a vaccination program in ethnic Serb enclaves but was ordered to stop by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian government.

Bosnia has also received small deliveries of vaccines from Serbia, as has North Macedonia (formerly Macedonia), another troubled new state created after Yugoslavia fell apart.

The European Union vaccines travails have exasperated Serbians who believe their future lies with Europe, not Russia or China. “It failed at the most critical time,” said Zoran Radovanovic, a retired professor of epidemiology.

He said he loathed the direction Mr. Vucic has taken the country by limiting media freedom and harassing critics. But, Mr. Radovanovic added: “Unlike so many other promises and false statements by Vucic, this is not just propaganda. Vaccines are something real. We have them.”

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At Kosovo Monastery, Nationalist Clamor Disturbs the Peace

The local mayor, Bashkim Ramosaj, an ally of Mr. Haradinaj, has resisted giving the monastery back any land, defying a 2016 ruling by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court that the territory claimed by Father Sava must be returned. The mayor, who declined to be interviewed, told local media outlets that he would rather go to jail than obey the ruling and surrender territory.

The land, 60 acres of farmland and forest outside the monastery walls, belonged to the church until 1946, when it was seized by Yugoslavia’s socialist government.

In the 1990s, the remnants of a crumbling Yugoslav state returned the land following the rise to power of Slobodan Milosevic, an atheist communist functionary who had metamorphosed into a champion of Serbian nationalism and the Serb Orthodox Church.

While the ethnic Albanians who took shelter in the monastery during the war quietly support the monks, the abbot said, their political leaders often view the land dispute “as a continuation of their war against Serbia, as if we are Milosevic proxies, which we are not.”

The court ruling that confirmed the monastery’s land claim, he added, “was not a Milosevic decision but a decision by the highest court of Kosovo.”

The foot-dragging on implementing the court’s ruling has increasingly exasperated the United States, which sent warplanes to attack Mr. Milosevic’s troops in Kosovo in 1999 and broke his grip on the territory.

The monastery’s case over its land, Philip S. Kosnett, the American ambassador, warned in a recent statement, “is not about ethnicity, politics, or religion; it is about property rights and respect for the law.”

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In a Land Dominated by Ex-Rebels, Kosovo Women Find Power at the Ballot Box

PODUJEVA, Kosovo — Saranda Bogujevci gazed without flinching at a cluster of bullet holes left in the garden wall by a massacre two decades ago that wiped out most of her family and put 16 rounds into her own body.

She said her mind had erased visual memories of the slaughter by the Scorpions, a Serb paramilitary unit. But, she said, “I can still smell the earth mixed with the smell of blood.”

Ms. Bogujevci’s against-the-odds survival — she was left for dead in a heap of bodies in her neighbor’s garden — and her subsequent determination to testify against the men who murdered her mother, grandmother, two brothers and four other relatives have made her a symbol of uncommon fortitude in Kosovo, a land still scarred by the traumas of war in the 1990s.

But Ms. Bogujevci, 35, is far more than a symbol. She is part of an unlikely wave of women being elected to Parliament in Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, but remains one of the poorest countries in Europe. When final results of a Feb. 14 election were finally announced on Thursday in Pristina, the capital, they showed that women had won more seats in Parliament than ever before — nearly 40 percent of the total.

Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

These elected women have convinced voters that they can stand up to Serbia, which has refused to recognize Kosovo as an independent state, and also confront the corruption, criminality and poor governance that dashed the high hopes that attended the end of Serbian rule.

arrested on war crimes charges — is expected to be selected outright in coming days. Ms. Osmani, who ran for election on the same ticket as Ms. Bogujevci, won more votes than any other candidate — and also more votes than anyone else since Kosovo started holding elections two decades ago.

Her appeal is particularly strong among young people and women, more than 60 percent of whom, according to exit polls, voted for a slate of candidates that she led along with Albin Kurti, a longtime champion of progressive causes.

circulated online, convincing even skeptics that Ms. Osmani, an expert in international law and former professor at the University of Pittsburgh, could hold her own and bring real change.

“This made me realize that we had a chance, that she is not just bargaining for power and will stand up for herself and all of us,” said Elife Krasniqi, a Kosovar anthropologist who researches Balkan women’s movements at the University of Graz in Austria.

A rival would-be president, Ramush Haradinaj, a wartime K.L.A. commander and former nightclub bouncer, said during the campaign that Serbia would cheer if Ms. Osmani were selected because it feared a strong male leader like himself, preferring a “weak woman.”

An ally of Mr. Haradinaj’s derided Ms. Osmani as a “fat woman.” After a public uproar, he said that he had been misunderstood and that he had meant she was “fat in the brain.”

Such appeals to macho sentiments did not help in the election: Mr. Haradinaj’s party won only 7 percent of the vote.

The challenges facing the new female lawmakers are immense. Corruption is rampant, inequality huge and development scarce. Nearly a third of the population is unemployed, with a jobless rate at over 50 percent for young people and 80 percent for women, by some counts. Ms. Bala, the activist, said that while 60 percent of university graduates each year are women, 70 percent of job offers go to men.

Many of the female candidates explicitly targeted those issues in their campaigning.

Doarsa Kica, a 30-year-old lawyer, gave up her job to run on an anticorruption platform, citing encounters in court with corrupt judges and anger at politicians “who live in million-dollar houses when they only have a $1,000 monthly salary.” Ms. Kica joined the ticket of Ms. Osmani, her former professor at Pristina University, and won a seat.

The emergence of women in Kosovo politics has been a long, painful process.

Kosovo has had one female president, but that was the result of a back-room deal engineered by the United States, which led a NATO bombing campaign that broke Serbia’s grip on the territory in 1999 and has since played a major role in its affairs.

The United Nations, which administered Kosovo for nearly a decade after the war, also imposed a quota system in 2000 that guaranteed women 30 percent of the seats in Parliament.

But with voters now accustomed to women in Parliament and disenchanted with many male politicians, female candidates are winning representation outright. Ms. Bogujevci, for instance, first entered Parliament in 2017 under the quota system but, after doubling her vote count on Feb. 14, won on her own.

Igballe Rogova, a women’s rights activist, said voters were now looking at female candidates “not as quota women, but as politicians who make promises and keep them and deserve votes.”

Mr. Kurti, who leads a center-left party that joined forces with Ms. Osmani, has a strong record of promoting women. Briefly prime minister last year, he put women in charge of a third of Kosovo’s ministries. Previous governments appointed just one or none.

The joint election ticket he headed with Ms. Osmani pledged that all state agencies and enterprises would be ordered to enforce hiring equality. Governments dominated by former K.L.A. commanders had for years resisted giving women who had fought in the war the status and pensions accorded to male fighters.

Ms. Bala, the activist, who carried a gun in the war, said that many women had taken part in the armed struggle against Serbian forces but were later written out of the script. “A myth was created that only men are strong and can fight,” she said.

Another fraught issue has been whether rape survivors, of which there were thousands during the war, should be recognized as war victims entitled to a monthly government stipend.

Legislation allowing rape survivors to apply for compensation was passed in 2014 after intense lobbying by Ms. Osmani. That was despite demands from some male legislators that women who had been raped in the 1990s get a medical certificate from a doctor — more than 20 years later — to prove that they were not lying.

Such demands, Ms. Osmani said, were “ridiculous and very insulting toward women.”

Ms. Bogujevci’s road to Parliament was also a long one. “I always said I would never enter politics,” she said in an interview in her family’s hometown, Podujeva.

She was flown to Britain for medical treatment soon after the fighting ended, and spent nearly 15 years building a new life in Manchester in the north of England, but started making increasingly frequent trips back to her home region.

She testified against her family’s killers before a court in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and exhibited an art display she had created chronicling her family’s story. She has now moved back to Kosovo, where strangers stop her on the street to voice admiration and support.

Like most Kosovo towns, Podujeva has a hulking war monument in its center featuring statues of burly men with guns. When Ms. Bogujevci visited before the election, however, she immediately became the center of attention, thronged by well-wishers.

Bokim Gashe, standing in the snow outside his wife’s tailoring business, said he would “of course” vote for her.

“She is stronger than all the men around here,” he said.

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