The life story of the Serbian warlord Zeliko “Arkan” Raznatovic is one that owes as much to myth and legend as it does to fact. In his time as gangster, football chief, paramilitary leader, politician, folk hero, war crimes suspect and finally gruesome murder victim, he left a trail of stories that Quentin Tarantino would have had trouble dreaming up. I have tried to separate the tales that stretch credulity too far, but some of them are just too damn interesting to leave out.
Raznatovic was born in the Slovenian town of Brezice on April 17th 1952, the son of a senior Yugoslav Air Force Officer. Growing up in Belgrade, his turn to petty crime started in his teens, and 1969 he was sent into juvenile detention for 3 years. His first stint in incarceration was for bag snatching in Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Park and was the start of much bigger things to come. His father is rumoured to have used his contacts in the State Security Services to try and straighten the boy out. This would explain where those many government contacts that would help him throughout his lifetime originated from.
Rather surprisingly, his tertiary qualifications came from the Restaurant Management School in Belgrade.
The Bank Robber
Arkan left Yugoslavia in the 1970s to start an eventful career as an armed hold-up artist in several Western European countries. He gained the admiration of fellow underworld types with his growing ambition and seemingly mystical ability to elude long term incarceration. In the words of a noted Serbian gangster, Goran Vokovic:
“Of all of us, Arkan robbed the most banks. He walked into them almost like they were self service stores - banks were his speciality as well as escapes from prison."
In 1974, Arkan was arrested by the Belgian police for armed robbery and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Of these he only served three, somehow managing to escape to the Netherlands. After a spate of further activity, he was again arrested, this time by the Dutch police. He was sentenced to seven years in 1979, this time as an accessory to 3 armed robberies. He escaped prison in Amsterdam after just 2 years and disappeared over the border. Later that year (1981), he was arrested in Frankfurt in the midst of yet another armed robbery. He was injured in the accompanying gun fight, which led the German Police, probably unaware of his recent past, to leave Arkan under light guard in the prison hospital. Needless to say, he wasn’t there when they came back in the morning. During this time he was also wanted in both Italy and Sweden for robbery offences. Interpol had an arrest warrant out for him until the day he died.
It was during this time the more fantastical tales began to circulate. He apparently burst into a courtroom in Sweden with two loaded pistols and tossed one to his mate in the dock whilst threatening the judge with the other. It was this kind of audacity, coupled with the frequency of his prison escapes that led to the speculation that Arkan was already working for the Yugoslav State Security Services. It is believed he was used in the assassination of several Yugoslav émigrés who were living abroad to as enemies of the Tito regime.
His nom-de-guerre comes from one of the many forged passports he used at this time.
The Chief Hooligan
In the early 1980’s Arkan returned to Belgrade to apparently start a quiet life running a patisserie he opened near the home ground of his beloved Red Star Belgrade football club (see, that education in catering came in handy after all). Apparently doing very well from this, he built his amazingly tacky, multistorey marble mansion right opposite Red Star’s home ground, Maracana. This is still an unofficial Belgrade landmark and is known for its sheer ugliness. Still, I don’t imagine too many people would have said this to his face.
Around this time, the high ranking members of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian leadership started showing concern that the fans of both Red Star and their local rivals Belgrade Partizan were becoming rather more violent and harder to control. Arkan was approached to take over leadership of the Red Star supporters club, a role which he relished. He renamed the hard core of the Red Star hooligans from the “Cigani” (gypsies) to the “Delije” (Heroes or fighters) and censored their chants for anything but Serbian Nationalist rhetoric. He recognised the power of football over the masses and they became his team, just like Real Madrid for Franco or the Italian team for Mussolini.
This level of loyalty from a lot of angry young men used to fighting was an important factor when the time came for Arkan to move into his next role. It was the hardest core of the Delije and Partizan Gravediggers that formed the core of the Serbian Volunteer Guard, or Arkan’s Tigers as they were popularly known.
With the imminent disintegration of the Yugoslav republic on the horizon in the early 1990s, Arkan started recruiting and heavily training a private army of Serbian paramilitaries, the Tigers. Football hooligans became private soldiers and were armed and trained in an abandoned military camp in Erdut. While other major paramilitary groups, like Vojislav Seselj's Chetniks were known for drunken rampages, the Tigers were feared for their strict discipline and clinical effectiveness. With the alleged tacit support of the Serbian Ministry of Interior Police (MUP), these groups were armed with serious military hardware (including tanks and helicopters), given intelligence and awaited the start of the wars to come. At their peak, the Tigers were thought to number some 10,000+ men.
When Croatia declared its independence and the war started in earnest, the Tigers began operations in Eastern Slavonia, which the Serbs claimed as Krajina, land historically belonging to them. While the Yugoslav Army fought the official war against the Croatian forces, the Tigers and other paramilitary groups engaged in ethnic cleansing, removing Croats from the captured areas. The most famous of these actions took place in Vukovar, where 250 men were taken from the local hospital, bussed into a field and summarily executed.
Not long after this, the Tigers, in full uniform, appeared at a local derby between Red Star and Partizan, attended by Arkan. The Tigers held up road signs saying “20 miles to Vukovar”, “10 miles to Vukovar” and “Welcome to Vukovar” in succession. When Arkan appeared from the owner’s box the crowd were drawn into a nationalistic frenzy, chanting no longer for their team, but for their new heroes. You would have to say at this point that popular support in Serbia was behind Arkan.
When the war moved to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Tigers followed. One of the key objectives of the Serbian forces was to capture the towns of Bijeljina and Zvornik with the hope of securing a land bridge between Serb majority areas in Bosnia and Serbia proper in Yugoslavia. Thus the Tigers entered these towns to bring their violent methods of demographic shift to bear. It was these actions, along with the Vukovar hospital massacre that would make up the bulk of the war crimes charges brought against Arkan.
An insight into the violent nature of the man came from a Newsweek photojournalist, Ron Haviv, who was one of the many foreign press members invited to witness the “liberation of Bijeljina from the Muslims”. While he found Arkan charismatic and charming at the time, he was later to receive the warlord’s ire for publishing a photo of one of the Tigers kicking a Muslim woman lying prone on the ground. Arkan’s response was to issue a death warrant for Haviv, stating publicly that he would enjoy drinking the photographer’s blood.
During this time, Arkan amassed a large personal fortune from a mixture of looting and war-profiteering. He had a good stranglehold on petrol smuggling and the smuggling of items that were the subject of UN sactions at the time of the war. This was to be the beginning of a criminal empire that would outlast the conflict, but is one of the possible causes of his untimely death.
Arkan had a gift for riding the wave of Serbian nationalism that was engulfing the rump of Yugoslavia during the early 1990s, and in 1992 was elected as an independent candidate in Pristina. He believed this was a good platform to make a play into national politics and founded the Party of Serbian Unity(SSJ), which tapped directly into the Eastern Orthodox, anti-Communist heart of Serbian nationalism. At one stage his stock was so high he was tipped to replace Seselj's Radical Party in the 1993 elections as the primary opposition to Milosevic’s government, but in the end his party won no seats. This did, however, do very little to his standing as a folk hero in Serbia.
At a bit of a loss after the Dayton Peace Accords ended the Bosnian war, Arkan turned his attention back to his business affairs. He bought into the casino at the Hotel Yugoslav, a chain of bakeries, a radio station, development properties (including plans to build Belgrade’s biggest business park) and his private passion, a football club. While his overtures to buy his beloved Red Star failed, he managed to take control of FC Obilic, a small Belgrade club languishing in the lower levels of Yugoslav football. The imagery was strikingly fitting, the club being named after Milos Objilic, one of the historically suspect heroes of the Battle of Kosovo Polje, the central legend of Serbian nationalism.
Arkan ran Objilic much as one would expect him to. He habitually walked into opposition dressing rooms and told them in no uncertain terms what would happen to them should they win the game. He had another Football club owner shot and had the star player said owner refused to sell him brought to Belgrade in the boot of a car. The young man in question promptly signed with FC Objilic and played with renewed enthusiasm for the game. In three years FC Objilic had moved up to the top level of Yugoslav football and won the championship. He was forced to relinquish control of the club to his wife, Ceca after UEFA decided to bar FC Objilic from the Champions League due to Arkan’s indictment by the UN War Crimes Tribunal.
The Diva’s Husband
It was at his training camp in Erdut in late 1993, during a celebration to mark the Tiger’s third anniversary that Arkan first met the turbofolk diva Svetlana Velickovic, better known as Ceca. The pair was married on 19 Febuary 1995 in what can only be described as a music video of a wedding. He came to collect her from her parent’s house in Zitoradje by shooting an apple of her parents roof and having the best man fit her with a gold slipper (not a tradition known anywhere outside Cinderella). Then the pair (he dressed in a WW1 Serbian officer’s uniform and she in a dress based on Scarlett O’Hara) were conveyed to Belgrade in a convoy of 40 SUVs to a lavish reception at the Intercontinental Hotel.
At the time they were Serbia’s answer to the Beckhams. They appeared in the state owned media on a regular basis and Arkan’s bankrolling of Ceca’s musical career put her in a class that none of her rivals could hope to match. The glamour and celebrity that surrounded the couple helped to draw attention away from Arkan’s rather shady dealings in the Belgrade underworld that took up much of his time during this period. They were considered role models to young Serbs everywhere.
At times, however, Arkan’s past would come back to haunt him. During a call in show on the state owned Pink TV, one caller admired the gold and diamond necklace being sported by Ceca and accurately described the inscription on the back. When the noticeably uncomfortable golden couple asked how she knew this, the caller replied that Arkan had stolen it from her in Bjelina. A commercial break was quick to follow.
The War Crimes Suspect
In March of 1999 the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague indicted Arkan for war crimes during the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s. He came out into the Western media to deny any involvement with war crimes, stating to the BBC:
"I fought in the war in 1991 and 1992 . Muslim soldiers were killed, but my soldiers were killed too. I only killed enemy soldiers in a fair fight”
He denied having a private army, claiming the members of his units were under the direct control of the Yugoslav army and claimed categorically that they were not involved in ethnic cleansing. These statements were a direct contradiction of those made by Milosevic, who claimed to have never been able to influence the paramilitaries. When asked why he did nothing to reign in the activities of Serbian paramilitaries in general, and the Tigers in particular, Milosevic answered it was due to his being scared of Arkan.
At about this time, rumours came that the Tigers had been mobilised and sent into the new conflict in Kosovo
, however Arkan denied this, saying he’d only fight NATO
troops should ground forces be deployed onto Yugoslav soil.
The Murder Victim
As one would expect, Arkan made a great many enemies during his lifetime and people in that position rarely die of old age.
While dining at the swanky Hotel Interncontinental in Belgrade on 15 January 2000 Arkan’s party was approached by several armed men. He was shot 3 times in the face (mouth, temple and left eye) and died in hospital 2 hours later. It was during the resulting gunfight with Arkan’s only surviving bodyguard that the assassin, one Dobrosav Gavric was injured. He was later found in a hospital in Loznica, near the Bosnian border and arrested. He was claimed to have once served with Arkan’s militia and to be either a junior member of the secret service or the police. He received 20 years for the killing and his accomplices received 15 years a piece.
As in life, the speculation over the nature of Arkan’s death invited a vast number of competing conspiracy theories. The list of suspects included rival gangsters and drug dealers (run of the mill turf wars), rival football club owners (in retaliation for match fixing), Bosnian Muslims, Croats, the Kosovo Liberation Army (in retribution for the Tiger’s actions), the Albanian mafia (for his involvement in their heroin ring) or associates of his wife’s music label. The two favourite theories were he was killed for trying to do a deal with War Crimes Tribunal to rat on Milosevic in return for immunity to prosecution, and that Milosevic’s son, Marko, had him killed for interfering with his cigarette smuggling business. Carla Del Ponti, head prosecutor at The Hague denied the former rumour had any basis. Both Robin Cook and Madeleine Albright expressed disappointment they would never see Arkan in the dock.
He was buried in Belgrade’s New Cemetery on Thursday, 20 January 2000 in front of thousands of mourners, including friends, relatives and members of the Serbian Volunteer Guard in full uniform. It was the kind of state funeral you would expect for a national hero, showing the prevailing view in Serbia that he still remained the poster boy of Serbian nationalism, despite being vilified in the media in the rest of the world.
He was 47 years old and survived by his wife and 9 children.