Arkan – my neighbour

If somebody had counted the number of times the events in Serbia had appeared in foreign news headlines in the past 10 or so problematic years, he or she would have realised that for a country of less than 10 million, Serbia certainly had a lot of publicity. The minute somebody important gets shot, some mad general threatens a neighbouring country and/or province or some alliance starts dropping bombs on the unsuspecting populace, a herd of correspondents, reporters and anchors wanting high ratings for their x o’clock news starts rushing into Belgrade, blocking the border crossings and, before the air sanctions were put into action, the airports.

And because at least one of those three things happens almost every week here, some members of the herd could probably apply for a Yugoslav passport, citing the number of years spent here. It’s surprising then that all those correspondents, reporters and anchors didn’t bother to learn a few small but important things about the country they can’t stop talking about. It is little more than five months ago now that I first realised just how little they know about what’s going on in here, when a well known UK news channel announced as breaking news that “Serbia’s most notorious paramilitary leader and the most wanted gangster, Arkan, is reported to be in Kosovo with his group, committing
atrocities.”

Well, he was neither the most notorious, nor a gangster, not to mention the fact that he wasn’t in Kosovo during the NATO bombing campaign, therefore being unable to commit any atrocities. The channel found that out soon enough, when Arkan himself phoned them from Belgrade just minutes after the announcement and had a small friendly chat, on-air, with their military analyst whom he knew from the Bosnian war.

But they didn’t learn their lesson. When Željko Ražnjatoviæ got shot last Saturday evening in the lobby of the Intercontinental hotel, the foreign media went on and on about his paramilitary group, the Tigers, his war crimes indictment, and about his status as “the most notorious, wanted, and who-knows-what-else person in Serbia”.

It is true that his paramilitary organization, whose full name is “The Serbian Voluntary Guard”, had it’s fair share of atrocities during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, along with looting and plundering non–Serb homes in those countries. Then again, all parties involved did exactly the same things to one another, and there is no evidence whatsoever that Arkan was something of a leader in the top 10 plunderers’ list. And “the most wanted” he wasn’t. Back in the late seventies, early eighties, he did break into several European banks, becoming a wanted man in Belgium, Holland, Italy, Sweden and a few more countries. But that doesn’t make him a gangster, just a bank robber. Some people in Serbia are far more wanted now than he ever was. And he actually stopped most of his criminal activities after the Bosnian war, when he married a local pop star and became the proud owner of “Obiliæ” football club, which after just a year under his management won the Yugoslav Cup (after which came a rumor, or should I say ‘a pure lie’, that they won most of the matches by threatening their opponents).

The fact that during the past few years he spent most of his time promoting his wife’s music carrier, his football club and his casino which was based in the Intercontinental hotel, makes the theory of a mob killing somewhat unlikely. The most probable suspect is the government, simply because Arkan just knew too much about what the VJ (the Yugoslav Army) and the MUP (the Ministry of Internal Affairs) did in the past wars. He always said that he would willingly go to Hague if somebody from NATO was also indicted, and with the chances of that becoming higher by the day (but still very low), someone from the government, very likely the president himself, maybe panicked, forgot it will probably never happen, and ordered the assassination.

The strangest thing about his death, however, is how much the media of the world are interested in it. While on RTS the news of his death came somewhere in between an announcement to the elderly that the pensions will be late again, and a report of yet another bridge being built, some foreign stations kept it at the top of the headlines for the whole weekend. And it’s mostly thanks to Arkan himself. Knowing very well the power of the media, he used his knowledge of 6 different languages and his disabling charm (all of those who spoke to him said that he didn’t look or act one bit like the thug he was portrayed to be) to promote his right-wing patriotic messages around the world during the bombing campaign. And when the journalists weren’t interested in talking to him, he would politely make them interview him. That’s how he blew the image the rest of the world had of him and his influence in Serbia out of proportion. You could say that he was the David Beckham of Serbia’s underworld – rich and married to a pop star, but living on old fame and publicity, making more trouble than he’s worth.

So the impact his death will have is very limited. It won’t affect the everyday or political life in Serbia as a whole, and the changes in Serbia’s organized crime will be very small, as was his part in it. The only thing it will affect is a single town of a little more than 50.000, Jagodina, and it’s a strange coincidence that that is the very same town I live in. Here lie the headquarters of his TV station, his “kick boxing club” – “The Tigers” – and his political party has a fairly large share in the local government, all off which gave Jagodina it’s illustrious nickname – “Arkansas”. And now the town that kept growing mostly because of Arkan’s sponsorship is soon to be out of funds, with most of its sponsor’s money divided amongst his offspring.

But don’t think that, just because I live in a town so heavily influenced by him, my view is in any way distorted. I would have liked to see him in the Hague Tribunal, but I don’t agree with the statements of some that him getting shot is the next best thing. No man deserves such a fate, no matter how bad he is. Although most people had only fear, and not respect for him, they are nevertheless shocked and somewhat saddened by the news. My mother, a passionate anti–Slobist, wept while she watched his funeral on TV. Don’t forget that whoever killed him, and some government controlled newspapers say that one of five of his shooters has been found in a hospital recovering from a gunshot wound (probably not true, but then again, who knows?), left nine children, two of them still infants, without a father, a young wife without a husband, and a dying mother without her son.