Arkan's Tigers (or Serbian Volunteer Guard)

views updated

Arkan's Tigers (or Serbian Volunteer Guard)

ALTERNATE NAME: Serbian Volunteer Guard

LEADER: Zeljko Raznatovic (Arkan)




The Serbian Volunteer Guard (SDG/SSJ) was a semiofficial militia active in the Yugoslavian Civil War. Led by Zeljko Raznatovic (better known as Arkan), the group was accused of a number of incidents of ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and was later implicated in the Kosovan war. The SDG has also been implicated in extortion, gun-running, political executions, and smuggling.


Besides the Holocaust against Europe's Jewish population, of all the regions involved in World War II, the people of Yugoslavia were struck most brutally by ethnic conflict and civil war. More than one million Yugoslavs died in the war, mostly at the hands of other Yugoslavs.

Following Axis occupation in 1941, the Nazis installed Croatian fascists, called the Ustasha, to control their own state, and later Bosnia. With a force that left even some Nazis shocked, the Ustasha carried out a program of genocide and forced religious conversion against Croatia and Bosnia's Serb population. The Serbs responded with the creation of a force known as the Chetniks—a loose alliance of Serb nationalists and royalists—seeking the creation of a Greater Serbia. Like the Ustasha, they waged a brutal genocidal campaign, but largely against Bosnia's Croat and Muslim populations, who they viewed as Ustasha collaborators. A third force, the communist Partisans, led by Josip Broz (better known as Tito), was predominantly Serb, but included a large number of Muslims, Croats, and Slovenians (Tito was half Croat, half Slovenian). The Partisans fought a two-fronted campaign against the Axis forces and the Chetniks, both of which they eventually crushed.



Zeljko Ražnatovic was born into a Yugoslav military family—his father was a senior air officer in the air force—in Slovenia, in 1952. A teenage delinquent, his father got him involved with the Yugoslavian internal security service, the Ubda, with whom he retained a connection while embarking on a lucrative criminal career in exile. Across northern Europe in the latter 1970s, Ražnatovic was involved in a series of bank robberies and in other violent crimes, linked to Yugoslav crime families in Frankfurt, Norway, and the Benelux countries. It was during this period that he picked up the nom de guerre, Arkan. He was caught often, but had a remarkable habit of escaping jail—in the Netherlands and Germany—and evading arrest—in Sweden and Italy. This is often attributed to his involvement with Ubda. In return, he is believed to have carried out a number of assassinations for Tito.

He returned to Belgrade in 1986 a rich man, and developed extensive business interests, some legitimate—he owned Belgrade's best cake shop—others patently not. His involvement with Red Star Belgrade's "Ultra" fans brought him close to extreme Serb nationalist hooligans, from whom he could pick recruits for his criminal gang, and from 1990–1991, a paramilitary force—the Serbian Volunteer Guard (SDG) or, more commonly, the Tigers.

While helping Serb authorities in destabilizing Croatia in the fall of 1990, he was arrested for illegal possession of weapons, but Slobodan Milosevic bought his freedom—for one million German marks—and he returned to Belgrade six months later, boasting he would soon "be back in Zagreb to open a cake shop on Republic Square."

The deal showed how closely Arkan was involved with the Milosevic government, and he soon returned to Croatia to do the Serb government's bidding: providing brutality when called upon, but distant enough to provide the cover of deniability. At the same time, Arkan courted publicity, mixing with Western journalists and even allowing an embedded photographer to follow his militia. To ethnic Croats and later to Bosnian Muslims and Kosovans, he was feared like no other; to the West, his implication in atrocities, such as that at Vukavor, saw him despised; but to Serb nationalists, he was an adored figure, a glamorous hero that was loved and lionized. In 1995, he married Ceca, Yugoslavia's most famous pop star, in a lavish ceremony broadcast on national television.

The Dayton Accords required the dissolution of the SDG, but Arkan retained many of his key Tigers to operate his increasingly criminalized business empire. Many of the rest remained semi-dormant, but his ability to pick his paramilitary force for the Kosovo conflict showed that Dayton had barely been observed in letter and not at all in spirit.

His business interests and forays into politics made him almost as many enemies among fellow Serbs as his paramilitary activities had done among Croats, and the now former Yugoslavia's Muslims. Following his assassination in January 2000, it was perhaps unsurprising that no one knew the perpetrator's motive as he had so many enemies. It could have been a rival criminal or politician, or a foreign government, Croatian or from beyond.

From the remnants of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Tito formed modern Yugoslavia (comprising a federation of six republics, including Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, and two autonomous regions within Serbia: Vojvodina and Kosovo), which he led until his death in 1980. It seemed an unlikely federation, but he suppressed ethnic nationalism and the hatreds carried over from World War II with a policy he called "brotherhood and unity."

When Tito died in 1980, however, Yugoslavia started to come apart. The key figure in the breakup and the hostilities that followed was the Serbian politician, Slobodan Milosevic. He encouraged, and later exploited, Serb nationalism within Serbia and among Serb minorities in other republics as a way of extending his influence. Although, like Tito, a communist, Milosevic exploited the sense of "victimhood" among Yugoslavia's Serbs. He also stripped Kosovo and Vojvodina of their autonomy, taking control of their votes in the rotating presidency that had replaced Tito's rule.

Deeply suspicious of Milosevic's growing power and the impact of his nationalism, Slovenia and Croatia seceded from the Yugoslav federation in 1991. Bosnia was to follow in 1992. Yet, the rumblings of discontent across the Balkans had long been anticipated in Serbia's capital Belgrade, and militias—along the lines of those that had made up Chetnik forces in World War II—had begun to form, often with the support of the Serbian federal government.

What would emerge as the most notorious of these—the Serbian Volunteer Guard, or Tigers—was formed towards the end of 1990 by Zeljko Ražnatovic (Arkan), a Slovenian-born Serb and career criminal. Born into a military family, Arkan had been a delinquent adolescent, turning his energies to theft and football hooliganism. It is believed that his father, a senior officer in the Yugoslav air force, put him in touch with the state security police, the Ubda, as a way of keeping him from trouble. With Ubda's alleged collaboration, Arkan became an international bank robber in the latter half of the 1970s, even escaping from German and Dutch jails. In return for Ubda's apparent support, he carried out assassinations of Tito's enemies abroad.

When he returned to Yugoslavia a rich man in the 1980s, Arkan took control of a series of businesses in Belgrade. His Ubda connection did not end there, however, and they arranged for him—reverting to his adolescent pastime of football hooliganism—to take control of the youth brigades of Red Star Belgrade. As well as being a notoriously violent gang of hooligans, these were among Serbia's most virulent nationalists, and because of their preeminence in European soccer (they would win the European Champions Cup in 1991), arguably the most exposed to the outside world.

In 1990, under the orders of an Interior Ministry chief, Radovan Stojcic (known as Bazda), Arkan's detachment of football hooligans began receiving arms training, in case Belgrade came under attack. They were a well-equipped irregular detachment, which, after Croatia's secession in 1991, became essential to Serb forces seeking to provide the sizeable Serb minority in Croatia with its own little state. Serb forces brutally cleansed parts of eastern Croatia of ethnic Croat civilians. Indeed, as fighting escalated, Arkan's "Tigers" became increasingly important to Milosevic. They could be called upon whenever Belgrade required actions of extreme brutality, but their tentative links with the Milosevic regime afforded the Yugoslav President the option of deniability.

At the heart of the battle in the early stages of the war with Croatia was the prosperous town of Vukavor, near the border with Serbia. This was virtually razed to the ground after a three-month siege in the fall of 1991 and, in November 1991, as it was about to fall to Serb forces, three hundred of the town's remaining Croats took sanctuary in its hospital, where they waited until a deal for their safe passage out of Vukavor was brokered by the Croatian and Serb sides. Yet before this could happen, SDG forces intervened and bussed the patients—mainly Croats—to a deserted field and massacred them. In 1997, the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague indicted Arkan for leading this massacre.

The Vukavor massacre gained Arkan instant recognition in both the crumbling edifice of Yugoslavia and abroad. In Croatia, and later Bosnia and Kosovo, it meant that when rumors of Arkan's Tigers imminent arrival circulated in villages and towns, the populations would flee en masse, fearing for their lives. On the occasions that the Tigers did turn up, they would loot and burn what was left them. To Serbs, by contrast, he was a hero, afforded celebrity status, which was cemented in 1995 when he married the country's most famous pop star, Ceca—an event that was shown on national television.

Internationally, however, the Tigers' actions—coupled with those of other militias, and rogue divisions of the regular Yugoslav Army, such as that led by General Ratko Mladic—led to the dissipation of any political or historical sympathy for Belgrade.

Croatian forces nevertheless fought back, also expelling Serb citizens and becoming implicated in atrocities, in a struggle that would last until 1995.

When Bosnia declared independence in 1992, a conflict there would play out along similar lines. Here, Arkan's troops committed their most heinous crimes. Sweeping across eastern Bosnia, they pillaged towns, villages, and communities, raping, beating, torturing, and killing their victims. Horrific remnants of their crimes would be left—a victim with their eyes gouged out left in the middle of a street in Bielijina (scene of one of the Tigers' most notorious attacks in April 1992), or mutilated Bosnian Muslim bodies left floating in the Drina at the town of Visegrad—as "calling cards," increasing already high levels of panic among the Bosnian Muslim population. Despite international condemnation, Arkan, who spoke fluent English, courted Western journalists and even allowed an American photographer, Ron Haviv, to become "embedded" with the Tigers. Haviv captured many of their atrocities on film.

Under the Dayton Accords, which brought an end to the Bosnian conflict, the SDG were formally disbanded, but in reality remained only semi-dormant, so that they could be called upon in times of a "national emergency." Arkan retained many as his own personal bodyguards as he built on his extensive business operations. He even indulged his old passion for football, buying Obilic, a minor Belgrade team, which was transformed—with his wealth—into Yugoslav national champions, and entered the European Champions League.

Arkan also attempted to enter politics, which brought a public distance with Milosevic, although secretly they apparently remained close. When war broke out in the Serb province of Kosovo in 1998–1999, Arkan urged his men to join the regular army, but in reality they were involved in many of the attacks on Muslim villages that marked an upsurge in the fighting. Arkan based himself in Pristina's main hotel (which he also owned) where he was believed to direct many of the Tigers' operations.

Immediately prior to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in March 1999, the UN War Crimes Tribunal made public Arkan's indictment, although he continued to deny the accusations waged against him.

Milosevic was himself indicted in May that year, which increased the pressure on Arkan. In the months that followed, he allegedly ordered the murders of several allies from the Yugoslavian wars, each with the potential to testify that Milosevic had personally sponsored the crimes of which he was accused.

On January 15, 2000, Arkan was assassinated in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade. It was initially assumed that his killing had been ordered by foreign agents or rival gangsters. It is since believed that his killing followed a wider pattern of deaths and was carried out on Milosevic's instructions. Whether this was to protect him against Arkan's testimony at the War Crimes Tribunal, or to boost the interests of his son, Marko, who himself had extensive underground interest, remains unclear.

His widow, Ceca, remains a prominent figure in Serbian society, and it is believed that the remnants of the Tigers continue to run the late warlord's underworld interests.


The SDG was an extreme Serb nationalist paramilitary organization, which believed in the creation of a Greater Serbia. This ideology calls for the unity of all Serb people—defined by language and belief in Orthodox Christianity—into a single nation state. Its second tenet was a kind of pan-south Slavism, which foresees the acceptance of Serb nationalism and rule over the Balkans.

In some respects, this was a Serb tilt on Yugoslav nationalism, but in practice manifested itself as xenophobia of the worst kind. The SDG were the modern successors of the Chetniks, extreme nationalists who believed that only the ethnic cleansing of "their" lands could see the creation of a workable Greater Serbia.

The SDG's influence was perhaps exaggerated by the nature of its crimes and the charismatic, publicity-seeking presence of its leader, Arkan. It could provoke terror and the evacuation of a dozen villages (and thus successfully ethnically cleanse them) merely by spreading rumor of its intended arrival in a district. This was because of the savagery of the attacks it was involved in, which included not just murder, but torture, rape and mutilation.

Arkan, for his part, was publicity-conscious in the extreme, both among fellow Serbs and to the Western media, which he courted relentlessly. Seldom would the latter report his crimes favourably, but among many Serbs he was seen as a hero and celebrity, a position he cemented with his marriage to Ceca in 1995.

Following the Dayton Accords, which called for its dissolution despite its part in the Kosovo war, the SDG became part of Arkan's criminal empire. Its activities expanded to extortion, smuggling, gun running, assassinations, prostitution, and latterly, people-smuggling. Even after Arkan's death, the SDG has retained an important position in the Serbian underworld.


Arkan's violent death in January 2000 prompted a flurry of speculation, but as of 2005, the answers are no clearer than the speculation that immediately followed his killing.

"Even a brief look at Arkan's life—from bank robber and arms dealer to leadership of one of Serbia's most notorious paramilitary groups—reveals a long list of those who could have wanted him dead," argued Joe Havely in a January 2000 BBC online report. "Consequently conspiracy theories about who was behind the killing are rife. The list of those mentioned in connection with Arkan's death range from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to rival gangsters, arms dealers, drug smugglers and even Serbian soccer chiefs, angered that Arkan had apparently used his position as the head of Obilic football club to engage in match fixing." Havely also speculated that "Bosnian Muslims, Croats or members of the Kosovo Liberation Army had put a price on his head, or that associates of his superstar 'turbo-folk' singing wife, Ceca, may have been involved."

Nevertheless, Havely wrote, "By far the most popular theory is that Arkan was killed because he knew too much, and possibly because he was about to hand over evidence to international prosecutors implicating President Milosevic in war crimes."

Ultimately, as concluded in The Observer: "Few in Belgrade are confident that the authorities will ever truthfully get to the bottom of Arkan's murder."


SDG formed from criminal gangs associated with Red Star Belgrade football club
Arkan released after six months in Croatian custody, following a Serb bribe of one million German marks.
SDG emerge as most powerful paramilitary unit in eastern Slavonija (area around Serbo-Croat border).
Vukavor massacre.
Tigers assault on Bosnian town of Bielijina marks entry into Bosnian war.
Dayton Accords call for the dissolution of the SDG.
SDG implicated in disturbances that lead to Kosovo war.
Arkan indicted for war crimes.
Arkan assassinated in Belgrade hotel lobby.


The SDG has virtually disappeared from the headlines since the end of Yugoslavia's decade-long civil war. Moreover, the targeted killings of many of its leaders mean it is likely to escape justice in the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. As it struggles towards democracy, Serbia remains beset by underworld intrigue and Arkan's successors are said to retain a stronghold.



Glenny, Misha. The Balkans 1804–1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers. London and New York: Granta, 2000.


Calabres, Massimo. "My Tea with Arkan the Henchman." Time. April 12, 1999.

Web sites

Havely. Joe. BBC News Online. "Arkan Murder Mystery." 〈〉 (accessed September 5, 2005).

Human Rights Watch. "Bosnia and Hercegovina Unfinished Business: The Return of Refugees and Displaced Persons to Bijeljin." 〈〉 (accessed October 17, 2005).

About this article

Arkan's Tigers (or Serbian Volunteer Guard)

Updated About content Print Article


Arkan's Tigers (or Serbian Volunteer Guard)