Don’t give whataboutery a chance

Don’t give whataboutery a chance

While asking to “give peace a chance,” Red Star Belgrade ultras forgot a war close to home – and their bloody role in it.

FK Crvena Zvezda, better known outside the Balkans as Red Star Belgrade, met Glasgow’s Rangers in the round of 16 of the UEFA Europa League. A far cry from the side which won the Balkans their first – and only to date – European Cup in 1991, this was the club’s best European run since then.

The Delije, the club’s largest fan firm, displayed a ‘tifo’ before the match which made its way to social media: a set of banners listing various conflicts ended with the phrase ‘give peace a chance.’

The list of conflicts that the Delije found worth mentioning reads like a summary of U.S.-led military and political interventions over the past century, from the Vietnam War to a coup d’etat in Greece. As a result, there was no space left for the wars that the fan firm itself had played a strong role in.

While Zvezda’s captain Stevan Stojanović lifted the European Cup in Bari, the Delije‘s leader was in a Croatian prison after attempting to visit Serbian secessionist leaders. That leader was Željko Ražnatović, who had previously led the riot that forced a league tie between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star to be abandoned.

Ražnatović, also known as Arkan, founded the Serb Volunteer Guard that would go on to commit war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. A United Nations commission wrote that Arkan’s group “played a major role in the ethnic cleansing campaign in [Bosnia and Herzegovina]” and the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia charged Ražnatović with crimes against humanity, including the killing of dozens of civilians.

Ražnatović recruited his soldiers from the ranks of Delije, some of whom wore the Zvezda logo on their uniforms while fighting for the ruthless nationalist project. Despite their direct involvement, or more likely because of it, the ultra’s call for ‘peace’ ignored the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fans only managed to commemorate ‘Republic of Srpska 1995’, a reference to NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force that followed the genocide in Srebrenica and the massacres at Sarajevo’s marketplace perpetrated by the Army of Republika Srpska.

To date, the Delije have not disowned their former leader or their fellow club members – whose crimes have gone largely unpunished. Ražnatović, who was assassinated in 2000, had meanwhile bought another Belgrade football club and led them to success through intimidation and violence. The now defunct FK Obilic’s stadium still features a mural dedicated to the warlord.

This ‘tifo’ echoes a popular sentiment in Serbia and other countries that the global response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine reflects ‘double standards’. However, the ultras themselves left little doubt as to which side they’ve picked in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, chanting “Russia, Russia” during the first leg at Ibrox, as they had done days before at their Serbian SuperLiga game at Vozdovac. Their club continues to proudly display Russian energy giant Gazprom on their shirts, unlike Schalke who ended their sponsorship arrangement in response to the war.

Calls for ‘peace’ which ignore war crimes that took place an hour’s drive away from Belgrade are certainly suspicious. Many of the incidents memorialised on the Delije‘s ‘tifo’ were indeed horrific and unjustified acts of aggression. So were Milošević’s wars on Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. So is Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which Zvezda’s ultras have thrown their support behind.

There are many that draw parallels to the break-up of Yugoslavia to justify Putin’s aggression, imagining that it was the Americans or NATO that tore the country apart. That is a lie – Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević tore the federation apart with his meticulously planned and executed nationalist project to bring about a ‘Greater Serbia’. Arkan and his Delije were a key part of first mobilising public opinion behind the hateful project and then killing innocent people in its name. Today, they find themselves arguing for a similarly odious cause.