How Right-Wing Football Fans Were Mobilised for Bosnian Serb Celebration

Celebrating the Day of the Republika Srpska in Prijedor. Photo: YouTube, screenshot

How Right-Wing Football Fans Were Mobilised for Bosnian Serb Celebration

28. January 2022.12:18
28. January 2022.12:18
The night before the Day of Republika Srpska was marked in defiance of a Constitutional Court ruling, Bosnian Serb football fan groups celebrated with fireworks and nationalist symbols in what appeared to be synchronised events tolerated by local authorities.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

Dodik, who was appearing as a guest on the ‘Telering’ show on Radio-Television Republika Srpska, RTRS in December 2021, said that the 30th anniversary of Republika Srpska’s founding in January was “a serious story”.

“We shall celebrate the Day of Republika Srpska very powerfully,” he said.

Bosnia’s Constitutional Court has declared the entity’s annual holiday on January 9 unconstitutional, partly because it discriminates against non-Serbs in Republika Srpska, as that day is also a Serbian Orthodox religious holiday, St Stephen’s Day.

The entity and local authorities organised a series of official celebrations to mark Day of Republika Srpska on January 9 and the day before. But in many towns in Republika Srpska, football fan groups decided to make their own contribution to the celebration of the Bosnian Serb anniversary on the night of January 8-9.

Lighting torches and setting off fireworks, while using drones to film videos of their celebrations, local fan groups marked the Day of Republika Srpska in what appeared to be a uniform manner. BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina registered similar celebrations in at least ten towns in Republika Srpska.

The police confirmed to BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina that the gatherings had not been announced in advance, but it seems that the police and local civil authorities tolerated the fireworks, torch-lighting and marches through the town centres, which were often accompanied by the display of photos of convicted war criminals and the chanting of hate-filled slogans.

Branko Todorovic of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights NGO believes that fan groups organised the celebrations in concert with the authorities, and that they dovetailed with the authorities’ political and ideological stances and the current political strategies.

“We can see that those people, fan group leaders or gang leaders, have huge power, they have very strong and close ties with politics, they act with impunity, and they are never targeted by the police or prosecution or courts,” Todorovic said.

In Prijedor, fans of the FK Rudar Prijedor club, accompanied by local residents, celebrated January 9 by lighting torches and displaying a banner reading: “This is our fatherland, the one and only Republika Srpska” in front of a memorial cross.

Flying a flag depicting wartime Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic at the city stadium in Prijedor, several fan groups also set off pyrotechnics. Men in black jackets marched through the town, chanting: “General [Mladic], praise be to your mother.” This slogan can also be seen on numerous murals around Bosnia and Herzegovina glorifying Ratko Mladic, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the Srebrenica genocide and other wartime crimes.

“What makes this celebration particularly beautiful is that supporters of Rudar from Prijedor, supporters of Zvezda, as well as the Republika Srpska Patriot Boys [a fan group] and Serbs for Serbs [a nationalist charity organisation], took part in it all together as one,” says a description of a video published on YouTube on January 9.

After offensive messages were written on walls of the FK Rudar stadium in Prijedor recently, the club’s fan group, the Alcohol Boys, dissociated themselves from the scrawls, saying that “players of various ethnic origins played or are still playing there [at the Rudar stadium], and there is no room for such chauvinist inscriptions by individuals wanting to tarnish a group whose members sometimes even fixed up the stadium up for the benefit of all our fellow citizens”.

However, the Alcohol Boys have previously displayed Mladic’s photo at the stadium. Previous investigations by BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina have revealed that supporters of the fan group have also performed Nazi salutes.

Finding inspiration in genocide

Celebration on January 9 in Brcko. Photo: Facebook “Konzervativni klub”, screenshot

The Interior Ministry of Brcko District confirmed to BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina that a celebration in the town of Brcko on the night of January 8-9 was attended by Sindikat, a fan group from the local football Ilicka club called, as well as members of the Delije, a Red Star Belgrade fans’ group, and members of the Grobari, a fan group from Serbia’s other big club, Partizan.

During the celebration, several dozen Sindikat fans gathered in front of the Monument to Serb Defenders of Brcko, lit torches and projected an image of an Orthodox saint onto a building.

The same night, graffiti in memory of Srebrenica genocide victims was also defaced. Three people were arrested over the incident and confessed.

“Supporter groups are part of invisible networks linking politics and hooliganism through nationalistic ideologies,” said Mirza Buljubasic, assistant professor at the Faculty of Criminalistics, Criminology and Security Studies in Sarajevo.

Buljubasic said it is necessary to differentiate between fan groups and groups that might be called hooligan groups. He argued that hooligans do not follow sport for pleasure but out of the need to belong to a group that enables them to feel important.

By looking at material, images and videos that have been published online or posted on YouTube, BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina has found out that fan groups organised celebrations on the night of January 8-9 in Prijedor, Doboj, Banja Luka, Bileca, Zvornik, East Sarajevo, Modrica, Visegrad, Sokolac and Cajnice.

On one video posted on YouTube, filmed in the city of Visegrad, fans from the Delije supporters group, wearing black jackets and with black bandanas over their faces, marked the 30th anniversary of the founding of Republika Srpsk aby holding up torches up in front of an inscription honouring Ratko Mladic with the words “Your honourable fight, our eternal freedom”.

Later in the evening, the Delije gathered on Mehmed-Pase Sokolovica bridge in Visegrad to light torches, then went to a memorial to fallen soldiers, where they lit more flares and set off fireworks.

Todorovic said that fan group leaders have considerable wealth and enormous power to intimidate people in local communities. He said that because the local authorities fail to react, the fan groups can be used to put pressure on minorities, post-war returnees, the media and the opposition.

“Controlling fan groups and using them for political purposes isn’t new,” he said, recalling nationalism-inspired clashes between supporters of Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb at the Maksimir stadium in the Croatian capital in 1990, the year before the outbreak of the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

But Buljubasic said that politicians do not want to control all the groups’ members, just their leaders. Meanwhile the fan groups’ leaders do not always act out of the desire to make money, but were inspired to stage events marking the Republika Srpska anniversary because of the strong bond between hooligans and extreme nationalist political parties, particularly in smaller communities.

“It is very important to emphasise that unlawful acts by high-ranking individuals inside supporter groups, like drug trafficking, weapons possession, causing physical injuries and so on, can be tacitly amnestied [by the authorities] as long as they do not jeopardise the power that nationalist parties or privileged individuals in the local or higher political echelons have or are trying to preserve,” Buljubasic said.

On the evening of January 8, several dozen members of the Lesinari, a fan group from the club FK Borac Banja Luka, walked through the centre of Banja Luka carrying a banner reading: “Welcome to Republika Srpska” and “Dinara Calling”, a song by ethno-nationalistic singer Baja Mali Knindza, as well as Borac and Republika Srpska flags.

The fans stopped in front of the Temple of Christ the Saviour, where they stood with lit torches and flags flying. There were also fireworks, and the fans stood holding torches to make the shape of the number 30 to commemorate the anniversary of the founding of Republika Srpska in 1992.

Vojvode, a supporters’ group from the Sloga handball club, went out onto the streets of Doboj, marched around the Park of National Heroes, set off fireworks and then lit torches at the Gradina fortress.

The supporters’ gatherings across Republika Srpska were all marked by the use of large quantities of pyrotechnic articles.

Buljubasic said he thinks that the strongest driving force behind the expression of extreme nationalism among supporters is their  feeling of superiority for belonging to a specific ethnic group, and that this feeling cannot exist without dehumanising members of other ethnic groups.

“Through pyrotechnics and other performances, hooligans express their power, and it is very simple: ‘we’ (our ethnic group and extreme ideology) are on this territory and we are here to protect it from threats from ‘you’ (dehumanised members of other ethnic groups),” Buljubasic said.

‘A cover for organised crime’

Members of the Grobari, the Partizan supporters group, marked the Day  of Republika Srpska in Bileca, holding up a banner in the colours of the Republika Srpska flag with inscriptions reading: “We give our life for you, may your name last forever” and “Never conquered and always hated, happy birthday Republika Srpska”.

Grobari members also lit torches and set off fireworks in Gavrilo Princip Park in East Sarajevo to mark January 9, and symbolically made a number 30 with their torches.

Todorovic said he thinks that criminal gangs with links to Serbia often use fan groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a front for their activities.

“The story about fan groups, it is a cover – it is not about supporters, it is a cover for organised crime,” Todorovic said.

British professor of criminology Alberto Testa said in research published in 2020 that hardcore fan groups or ‘ultras’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina exist to earn money from criminal activities, particularly drug dealing, racketeering, coercion, intimidation and offering “services” to local politicians during election periods.

“Our research suggests that the Ultras phenomenon in BiH [Bosnia and Herzegovina] is not so much an issue of political or religious ‘extremism’… but more about their criminogenic nature, status and needs within the political, social and economic geography of their local environment,” Testa wrote in his report.

In the city of Zvornik, members of the Grobari marked January 9 in silence, holding up torches and a banner reading: “30 years of freedom” in front of the Central Memorial to Fallen Soldiers. As well as the banners, they displayed black flags with the outline of the Republika Srpska entity. A group of Grobari members also marched through the town of Sokolac, holding torches and Republika Srpska flags.

Buljubasic said that, according to his research, it can be concluded that there is significant potential for violent extremism among hooligans.

“But this are going unnoticed due to the dominant, false narrative that they are deviants who are acting good-naturedly or just ardent supporters while their ethnic politics, dominated by extremism, is echoing around the football stadiums and outside them,” he said.

There were also celebrations of the Day of Republika Srpska elsewhere in the country. A huge banner depicting an Orthodox Christian icon of St. Stephen was placed on a high-rise building in the town of Foca by members of the town’s Delije group.

Canvas icon of St. Stephen and banner of Ratko Mladic in Foca. Photo: YouTube, screenshot

There were also celebrations of the Day of Republika Srpska elsewhere in the country. A huge banner depicting an Orthodox Christian icon of St. Stephen was placed on a high-rise building in the town of Foca by members of the town’s Delije group.

A smaller banner with the words “Josanica 92” – a reference to a wartime massacre of Serbs – was hung nearby, as well as a huge picture of Ratko Mladic. Fans and locals gathered in front of it and lit torches and set of fireworks.

Following the pattern established elsewhere, members of the local Delije branch in Cajnice and other locals also gathered in front of the Orijent hotel in the town, singing, holding up torches and setting off fireworks.

Testa said he thinks that football stadiums are symbolic venues for promoting extreme ideological narratives, where young people become radicalised and then used as political tools.

“New nationalist elites have used sport as the basis for personal enrichment, to build power at the local level and to secure political legitimation in the eyes of their own national or ethnic groups,” he said.

Teo Zorić

This post is also available in: Bosnian