Surrounded by commando-clad riot police, the Belgrade skyline tinged smoky red and the air filled with battle cries punctured by exploding firecrackers, I was reminded of Rebecca West’s confession that “violence was all I knew of the Balkans, all I knew of the South Slavs.” Within hours of arriving in Belgrade, I was inside the cauldron of the Marakana stadium, home of Fudbalski Klub Red Star, who were hosting their eternal rivals FK Partizan. The matches between the two Belgrade teams are some of European soccer’s fiercest.
West had written, in her epic 1937 journey around Yugoslavia, of “an intensity of feeling that was not only of immense and exhilarating force, but had an honorable origin, proceeding from realist passion, from whole belief.”
Recent history has hardly been honorable.
In 1990, just two weeks after Franco Tudjman and his Croatian nationalist HDZ party swept to power in Zagreb, a match between Red Star and Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb descended into riots. In living rooms across then-Yugoslavia, television viewers saw hundreds being injured. Those were the Yugoslav league’s finals and they portended the collapse of the entire state. Passing through Zagreb on my way to Belgrade, I saw a plaque outside Dinamo’s Maksimir stadium, dedicated to “the fans of this club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on 13 May 1990.”
Red Star’s hardcore supporters, the Delije, are sworn Serbian nationalists and equally proud of their role in the struggle. At the time, the Delije was led by Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan. His Serb Volunteer Guard, which drew many members from the Delije, committed some of the worst atrocities of the Balkans conflicts.
For a time, a common commitment to Serbian nationalism even overrode the enmity between Red Star and Partizan. Although Partizan are named after Tito’s guerrilla force that fought against Nazis—and against the Chetniks, the fascist-allied Right-wing Serb militias—the Left-wing ultras of Partizan were now also suffused with Serb nationalism. During the 1992 Belgrade Derby that annually pits Red Star against Partizan, Arkan’s paramilitaries dominated the Marakana’s north stand and brandished road signs seized during their capture of the Croatian town of Vukovar. When their leader emerged, he was fervently acclaimed by both teams’ fans.
The unity could not last. In October 1999, shortly after NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia ended, a teenaged Red Star fan was killed by a flare fired from the Partizan end of the stadium. Although fans from rival camps still occasionally collaborate—as they did in an arson attack on the U.S. embassy in 2008—the norm is antagonism. Most derbies descend into violence.
Earlier this year the running battles in Marakana left dozens injured, including 35 police officers. Nor is the combat purely between the two teams. Partizan’s own fans are separated in the stadium by a section stuffed with riot police to prevent struggles between them over which group commands supremacy. Anyone who has ever witnessed the skirmishes couldn’t help but agree with the graffiti daubed on the Marakana’s north stand: “Epicenter of Craziness.”
Throughout the match actually taking place on the field, Partizan fans mock their rivals as “gypsies.” Red Star have adopted the tag. (It’s comparable to how, in my native England, many fans of the Tottenham Hotspur club, which traditionally has had a large Jewish following, have embraced the “yid” slur hurled at them by supporters of their rivals.) For their own part, Red Star taunt Partizan for being “Yugoslav federalists” and “communists”—and this despite the communist background of Red Star’s own founders and the communist connotations of its name.
At Saturday’s match, chairs were flung by Partizan fans but that was about as far as it went. The occasion was when a Red Star player had the temerity to celebrate a goal beneath them. Both sides of the field were engulfed by flames and flares hurled at the riot police below, causing the match to be suspended at one point. This is considered mild for a Belgrade Derby.
And as the smoke dispersed in the wake of Red Star’s 3-to-1 victory, the magnificent Church of Saint Sava, its gold cross resplendent against the night sky, rose over the stadium. Construction of the church, begun in 1935, is still unfinished due to perennial wars and lack of funds. Serbia’s own identity remains equally unresolved.
Last week, Serbian war-crimes prosecutors issued their first charges for the Srebrenica massacre. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has denounced the atrocities of July 1995 and determinedly pursued reconciliation with Bosnia as he seeks Serbia’s accession to the European Union. Serbian citizens already enjoy visa-free travel to the countries in the Schengen Treaty area, the no-border-checks zone comprised mostly of EU members. However, these enhanced links with the EU have also encouraged migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean to regard Serbia as a transit point to Western Europe.
At a Belgrade park-cum-refugee camp next to the city’s central bus station, I saw plenty of Serb volunteers aiding the newcomers. Serbs, of course, have been forced to resettle refugees more recently than have other European nations. However, many Serbs are troubled by the seemingly inexorable flows from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and North Africa. A cafe owner warned me that the Belgrade Derby may inflame nationalist passions and encourage extremist attacks on the refugees.
Having been in Budapest the previous week when soccer hooligans threatened to attack refugees before Hungary’s team played Romania’s, and then found myself amidst a riot outside the field after the Belgrade Derby, I was acutely aware that the sports-politics mix was a volatile and potentially pernicious one. Fortunately, attacks on the refugees did not materialize in Belgrade that evening. Yet tensions remain. As Hungary, the next stop for those traveling westward, finishes its razor-wire fence across the Serbian-Hungarian border (and begins construction on another fence along the Romanian-Hungarian border), more refugees will remain in Serbia amid Serbian fears that barriers are being erected to keep them out of Europe.
As I headed back up to Budapest after the Red Star-Partizan match the next morning, the train I was in carried a large group of Syrian refugees. At Subotica, the final station in Serbia before reaching Hungary, those without an EU visa or passport were forced to disembark. Police with sniffer dogs soon arrived to search the compartments for stowaways. Confronting the grotesque gray fence at the Serbia-Hungary border as it glinted in the late summer sunshine, I remembered West’s pre-World War II warning: “All Central Europe seems to me to be erecting a fantasy which I cannot interpret.” As the refugee crisis exposes the weakness of the EU’s current infrastructure, it is evident that the European project is no more complete than Serbia’s Saint Sava Church.