BELGRADE -- President Aleksandar Vucic had a staunch warning for the criminal underworld after a meeting last weekend of Serbia's National Security Council.
"Our message is that we're done with this gang," Vucic said on March 6. "To those who think they have inherited [the gang and its membership], I can say, 'You're done,' meaning you'll soon be behind bars."
Vucic had hinted a day earlier that the Serbian public would be shocked at what police had uncovered since the February 4 roundup of a soccer hooligan and reputed crime boss along with nearly two dozen other suspects.
Police at the time alleged that organizer Veljko Belivuk and his thuggish supporters of Belgrade's storied FK Partizan were "not soccer fans but criminals" responsible for "monstrous crimes."
One month later, Vucic added that a fourth murder charge was being added to kidnapping, drug trafficking, and other serious charges since the arrest of Belivuk, also known as Velja the Trouble.
The president accused Belivuk's group -- a hooligan crowd best-known as the Janissaries, named after Ottoman-era Balkan mercenaries -- of keeping a list of its enemies within the ranks of Interior Ministry and intelligence service operatives.
Vucic also blamed the problem on contagion from a decade-long drug war born in neighboring Montenegro that had poisoned the grounds of Partizan, one of Serbia's most beloved and successful soccer teams.
His message appeared to be aimed at assuring Serbs and the international community that years of bloodshed that has included car and restaurant bombings, assassinations of lawyers, and other gang violence was over.
But official deflecting over the homegrown threat and possible criminal ties to Serbia's political and security elite as well as a "smear campaign" targeting independent journalists, risks undermining Belgrade's credibility in the fight against organized crime, which experts say remains one of the most intractable problems in the countries that emerged after the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
Belgrade, We Have A Problem
"Serbia clearly has a problem with organized crime," says Walter Kemp, a senior fellow at the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Crime.
He cited gangland-style slayings and other incidents over the past two years, including the time since the coronavirus pandemic slowed public life to a crawl.
"Some of this is a spillover of the Kotor clan war," he said in a reference to the Adriatic coastal roots of a clannish gang feud whose tendrils extend from Montenegro to Serbia and beyond. "But there are other factors at play here [in Serbia] from petty crime related to football hooliganism to serious organized crime that seems, in some cases, to operate in a permissive environment."
The death toll from mafia-style killings in Serbia and Montenegro over the past decade is at least 175, according to a joint investigation by KRIK and RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
Dozens of those slayings are blamed on the turf war between the Kavac and Skaljari clans from Kotor, Montenegro, that has dramatically expanded since 2014.
But informed observers suggest it is misleading to regard Belivuk and his henchmen as an "imported mafia," as Vucic did immediately following the February 4 arrests.
KRIK journalist Bojana Jovanovic, who has reported extensively on Belivuk and organized crime, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that many of the criminals in question are Serbian citizens or residents who work in Serbia.
She said official statements are frequently crafted to further "a conspiracy theory" that "a foreign factor is involved and a foreign element wants to harm and destabilize the [Serbian] state."
Kemp noted that "Criminal groups in the Western Balkans cooperate well across borders and even between ethnic groups...[and] are also active outside the region, including for smuggling drugs but also carrying out assassinations. But I think Veljko Belivuk was well-known to the authorities long before there was a clash between the Montenegrin drug clans."
Belivuk's Army Of Hooligans
Belivuk and his Janissaries have long been linked by extensive investigative reporting to the Kavac cartel, accusations that officials have repeated since his arrest.
A towering physical presence, 36-year-old Belivuk has had been convicted of minor charges like brawling and destruction of property.
But he has had charges drastically reduced or dropped in other cases, including the nightclub killing of a rival Red Star fan in 2015 and the widely followed trial over the killing in 2017 of karate fighter Vlastimir Milosevic.
Investigative reports by KRIK, a local nonprofit and part of the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), have suggested that connections to influential politicians may have helped Belivuk avoid justice.
He emerged as a potentially disruptive force in soccer circles when he and two fellow hooligans were arrested for a brutal daylight attack on a driver and security guard for Partizan's director, Milos Vazura, at the club's main entrance in 2016.
Belivuk took over the leadership of Partizan hooligans four years ago on the foundations of the Janissaries amid a spate of gangland-style attacks and killings of fan-group leaders.
The Janissaries' own 26-year-old leader, purported drug dealer Aleksandar Stankovic, had been gunned down in an unsolved drive-by shooting in Belgrade in October 2016.
Belivuk and Stankovic were acquaintances, and Belivuk has suggested he knows who killed him.
On the day of Belikuv's arrest, police searched both Partizan Stadium and Rajko Mitic Stadium -- the home of fierce Belgrade rival Red Star -- and reported finding weapons on the Partizan grounds.
A former prosecutor and supreme court judge has suggested that Belivuk ran what amounted to an "army" of hooligans and could recruit more people than the notorious Zemun clan.
The power of the Zemun cartel -- which was blamed for the shocking 2003 assassination in broad daylight of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic -- has largely waned since then, in part because it finally spurred officials to crack down hard in what was dubbed Operation Saber.
After the February arrests, Interior Minister Vulin also invoked the Zemun gang -- which had infiltrated Serbian special operations and the Interior Ministry -- vowing that authorities "will not tolerate organized crime groups that believe they are stronger than the state."
Despite a stalled EU accession process and a diplomatic divide over the recognition of its former province, Kosovo, Belgrade remains publicly committed to increased cooperation with the West.
Vucic has managed to largely sidestep the kind of criticism from Brussels over rule of law and "state capture" that has animated his domestic political opponents.
But the European Union and the United States have repeatedly urged his administration to do more to fight organized crime.
The European Commission warned in October 2020 that "Serbia has yet to establish a convincing track record" of prosecutions and convictions of the criminal underworld.
"Serbia needs to increase its efforts in dismantling large and internationally active criminal organizations," the commission said in an official communication on enlargement policy.
The U.S. State Department calls Belgrade a "high-threat location" for crime targeting or affecting Washington's interests "due to the activities of organized crime groups."
Its latest Overseas Security Advisory Council singled out the "large contingent of 'sports fan clubs'" that frequently "have very strong ties to criminal, right-wing, and ultranationalist organizations."
"These hooligans are often the culprits in turf wars between criminal organizations, and have strong ties within the political structure in Serbia."
Even though Belgrade has a long way to go for EU accession, its candidate status brings obligations because of a stabilization and association agreement it has with Brussels.
The biggest and most robust economy among the so-called Western Balkan Six of aspiring EU members, Serbia relies heavily on exports to the European Union and receives much of its foreign assistance from Brussels and Washington.
"The EU does not want to import an organized-crime problem from this region, and the EU accession process is very clear about the responsibilities of states to crack down on organized crime and corruption," Kemp said. "Serbian governments have, in the past, taken tough action against organized crime, for example with Operation Saber in 2003. One would assume that if tackling organized crime is a priority for Serbia, the criminal justice system will take a tougher stance against criminal groups and their associates."
Vucic Under Pressure
The Belivuk case has spawned numerous accusations -- based on varying degrees of evidence -- of official ties to organized crime.
Some of the most widespread reports involve the levers of security and political power, including Vucic's ruling Progressive Party.
Since Belivuk's arrest, opposition calls have mounted for a thorough investigation into his purported ties to the government, including from the People's Party, the Don't Drown Belgrade initiative, the Social Democratic Party led by former President Boris Tadic, and former Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas's Freedom and Justice Party.
One of the most controversial accusations in the Partizan dustup has involved Novak Nedic, the 39-year-old general secretary within the government that dates back to Vucic's term as prime minister.
Nedic is also a senior Progressive Party official and seemingly ardent Partizan supporter.
Nedic used to practice his weaponry skills together with Stankovic and Belivuk, according to KRIK, although the disappearance of evidence sunk a criminal probe into how they were allowed access to a military firing range to do it.
In an interview last week with KRIK, Vladimir Vuletic, a deputy chief of Partizan who resigned after the raids, accused Nedic of trying to use his ties to soccer hooligans to take control of the club.
Vuletic blamed a battle for control between Nedic and FK Partizan's former leader, Zarko Zecevic, for "a rift" that led to the club's recent troubles.
"I think that both currents had support from the top," Vuletic said.
Vuletic repeated previous reports suggesting Nedic used his influence to help the Janissaries take over a coveted section of the bleachers at Partizan Stadium.
Asked at his press conference on March 6 whether "close associate" Nedic was being protected, since he had not been questioned by investigators about his connections to the Janissaries, Vucic fired back: "Novak Nedic is one of my close associates?"
Asked about Vuletic's claims, the president said Nedic "hasn't been at the stadium or in the stands for years."
"Did he initially want to be someone in Partizan? There's no doubt," Vucic said, before adding in a reference to the team's place in Yugoslavia's postwar history. "And who hasn't done that in any government that came to power from  onward?"
He hinted that the public might learn "in the weeks ahead" of possible ties between Vuletic and organized crime.
Police have also reportedly questioned Dijana Hrkalovic, a former Interior Ministry official who held several influential posts under minister Nebojsa Stefanovic.
Hrkalovic exercised seemingly unrivaled power over the police during a key period when Belivuk's group and the Kavac clan were ascendant and "settling scores" with their rivals, according to KRIK Editor in Chief Stevan Dojcinovic.
Hrkalovic, who once sued an opposition politician who quoted reports suggesting she had close ties to the slain Janissaries kingpin Stankovic, abruptly left the ministry in 2019.
Her former boss, Stefanovic, has moved on to become defense minister in the current government and remains a senior Progressive Party leader for Belgrade.
But indirect links have also been alleged between Vucic and members of Belivuk's group.
Vucic last year defended his son, Danilo, after media on multiple occasions published photos of the younger Vucic alongside Janissaries. One of those individuals, Aleksandar Vidojevic, is listed in police files as a member of the Kavaci clan, according to KRIK and OCCRP.
A former Freedom and Justice deputy leader, Marinika Tepic, said on February 10 that members of Belivuk's group were part of Vucic's personal security detail at his 2017 inauguration -- roughing up demonstrators in the process -- and at the unveiling of a new stadium around the same time.
Vucic's ruling Progressive Party responded through a board member by accusing Tepic of "trying to criminalize the president of Serbia and his family members with lies and fraud, knowingly making them legitimate targets."
A monthslong wiretapping scandal has also fueled the politically charged implications of the Belikuv case and the Serbian government's declared efforts to combat organized crime.
Vucic on New Year's Eve announced that more than 1,500 of his or his family's conversations had been recorded by the country's intelligence agency.
It is still unclear who ordered the wiretapping and whether they were -- as some have suggested -- byproducts of information-gathering on the Vucic family's interlocutors in those calls.
Vucic has suggested his taped calls included conversations with other state officials, such as a lawmaker from his Progressive Party and a deputy mayor of Belgrade.
When he publicly announced an investigation three weeks later into the surveillance, Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin said there were no legal or law-enforcement grounds for the eavesdropping. There was "not a single incriminating conversation," he said, adding that leaked transcripts had made their way to certain Interior Ministry officials.
Parliament speaker Ivica Dacic, the powerful longtime leader of the junior coalition Socialist Party, on March 11 warned against downplaying the seriousness of the unauthorized wiretapping and suggested they might be the work of organized crime.
He suggested it was an indication of how deeply Belivuk's ties went and characterized it as a threat to Serbia's constitutional order.
"The dilution of the case would be tantamount to an amnesty," he said, adding: "It's not possible that more than 1,500 wiretapped conversations are a coincidence."
'Smear' Targets Investigative Journalists
Activists and critics have warned for years of "state capture" by Vucic and his allies as shutdowns and an increasingly hostile atmosphere threatened independent journalism.
As the Belikuv investigations continued this week, reports in some Serbian media appeared to take aim at KRIK, hinting at possible ties between crime figures and the group whose dogged reporting has long chronicled Belivuk's and other shady groups' alleged influence among politicians, police, and other state institutions.
The Stockholm-based group Civil Rights Defenders responded by accusing Serbia's "pro-government tabloid media" of launching a "shameless smear campaign" against KRIK.
Pink TV and two newspapers, Kurir and Alo, aired and published front-page reports quoting lawmakers and other sources close to the government suggesting KRIK had stumbled into a problem of its own making.
Civil Rights Defenders Europe rejected such interpretations of the reports.
"This strategy has been deployed to deflect from the weaknesses in the state’s fight against organized crime," the group said.
It noted that, on the contrary, KRIK reports have "exposed ties between authorities and known criminals," and cited the recent arrest of Belivuk and his alleged accomplices. "However, prosecutors are yet to mount a serious case and, instead, the issue is being sensationalized across pro-government media, including this latest smear campaign."
KRIK reports frequently cite sources in the police and security sectors.
Its reporters have challenged authorities, including Vucic, with tough questions, including at recent press conferences on the Belivuk case.
"This shameless smearing of KRIK is not only an absurd fabrication, but it sets a dangerous precedent of putting independent journalists in the cross fire of an ongoing gang war. Should any harm be inflicted on their staff, we will deem the proponents of this narrative responsible."
Lockdown measures after the outbreak of the coronavirus last year put a halt to over a year of weekly protests in major Serbian cities accusing the government of rampant corruption, ties to organized crime, and a refusal to punish violent attacks against journalists and government critics.
KRIK's staff members have routinely faced other forms of harassment that have gone unpunished.
Police stood idly by in June when Jovanovic was accosted on the street and her smartphone snatched after she photographed Vucic's son watching a football match at a Belgrade bar alongside Janissaries.