Željko Ražnatović (Serbian cyrillic: Жељко Ражнатовић), widely known as Arkan (Аркан), (April 17, 1952 - January 15, 2000), was a Serbian career criminal and later a paramilitary leader who was notable for organizing and leading a paramilitary force in the Yugoslav Wars. He was on Interpol's most wanted list in the 1970s and 1980s for robberies and murders committed in a number of European countries and was later indicted by the UN for crimes against humanity, including his role as a leader in acts of genocide. Arkan was assassinated in 2000 before his trial.
Arkan grew up with three older sisters in a strict, militaristic household with beatings administered by his father being a regular occurrence. In a 1991 interview for Duga magazine, Arkan recalled: "He didn't really hit me in a classical sense, he'd basically grab me and slam me against the floor". Due to the highly demanding and significant position of both his parents, there appeared to be very little time in which a bond was able to be established between parents and children. His parents eventually divorced during his teenage years.
It wasn't long before Arkan began acting out. He was only nine when he ran away from home for the first time, spending a month and a half in Dubrovnik's international camp. He also often ran away to stay with his more welcoming relatives.
In 1972, at the age of 20, he illegally emigrated to Western Europe, hoping to find fortune through a career. Abroad, he met many well-known fighters from Yugoslavia who were later killed. He took his nickname, "Arkan", after one of the false names of his multiple passports.
He was imprisoned in Belgium in 1974, escaped in 1977, rearrested in the Netherlands in 1979 but escaped again in 1981. At one point, he was wounded in a clash with police. He fled from dozens of European prisons, including the compound which is today a high security prison for war criminals in the Scheveningen suburb of the Hague. Ražnatović was even on Interpol's ten most wanted list.
In his youth, Arkan was a ward of the Slovenian politician Stane Dolanc, his father's friend. Dolanc was chief of the secret police and a close associate of the Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito. Whenever Arkan was in trouble Dolanc helped him as a reward for his services to the Yugoslav secret state police (UDBA). From 1973 on Arkan worked as an undercover agent, whose job was to carry out assassinations of political emigrants and opponents of the ruling regime.
Arkan learned the main European languages because of his undercover works in Europe. He spoke fluent English, French and Italian, and was also familiar with German, Swedish and Dutch. He also spoke some Albanian and Bulgarian.
He returned to Yugoslavia in 1981 and continued his criminal career, opening a number of illegal businesses. In November 1983, two federal policemen ambushed Arkan at his house in order to have him arrested and interrogated over some of his activities. He resisted, pulled out his gun, and shot and wounded both of them. An intervention from Stane Dolanc effected his release from prison only two days later. This incident increased Arkan's criminal-political reputation in Belgrade.
As the political, ethnic and religious situation in the former Yugoslavia in the early nineties became tense, on October 11, 1990 Arkan created a paramilitary group named the Serb Volunteer Guard under the auspices of the Yugoslav Peoples Army (JNA) general staff. Arkan was the leader of this newly founded unit, which was primarily made up of the football hooligans of his favourite club at the time, Red Star Belgrade.
In November of 1990, Arkan travelled to Knin for a meeting of the council of war of the "Republic of Serbian Krajina". On the way back to Belgrade, he was arrested for gun-running by Croatian police at the border crossing between Croatia and Bosnia Dvor na Uni with five other Serbians on November 29, 1990. His group was charged with conspiracy to overthrow the newly formed Croatian state and the attempted assassination of the then newly elected Croatian president Franjo Tuđman. He was released from prison on June 14, 1991 under unclear circumstances, after a sensational political trial in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.
Arkan's Tigers, a paramilitary force he created, set up their headquarters and training camp in a former military facility in Erdut. His volunteer army saw action from mid 1991 to late 1995, initially in Vukovar region of Croatia. It is reported that his irregular military unit consisted of up to 10,000 well-trained fighters equipped with modern weapons, including a few tanks and helicopters. His units were supplied and equipped by the reserves of the Serbian police force during the war in Croatia and Bosnia.
After war broke out in the former Yugoslav republic of Croatia in the fall of 1991 and in Bosnia in April 1992, Arkan and his units Bijeljina moved to attack different territories in these countries. In the Krajina Arkan's Tigers fought in various locales in Eastern Slavonia. In the Republika Srpska, Arkan's Tigers, fought in battles in and around Zvornik and Brčko where they along with other Serb units overpowered the poorly armed and trained Bosniaks.
In autumn 1995 his troops fought in the area of Banja Luka, Sanski Most and Prijedor where they were routed. Arkan personally led most of war actions, and rewarded his most efficient officers and soldiers with ranks, medals and eventually the products of the lootings.
Arkan came to serve as a popular icon for both Serbs and their enemies. For some Serbs he was a folk hero and patriot, while serving as a target of hatred and envy to their enemies. His troops were also stationed in the Republic of Serbian Krajina to fight against the Croatian army, and he had a dispute over military operations with the Serbian regional leader Milan Martić Arkan also had friendly contacts and political plans with Russian ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Arkan was a powerful man with high-level connections in the state apparatus. He had significant influence over public spheres of Serbian society. As part of his public image, Arkan presented himself as a defender of Serbs and fighter for freedom and justice. He clearly fostered two types of images, that of a strong, stern, and often brutal leader in public as well as a caring and reserved family man in private. Arkan also organized and financed humanitarian aid for poor families and war orphans. He gave pensions to his crippled and otherwise wounded volunteers and the families of slain soldiers.
Arkan was glorified by part of the Serb population as a war hero, and was the subject of war songs. He owned a voluminous mansion in the elite Belgrade neighborhood of Dedinje where high-ranking politicians and foreign diplomats reside. Despite being raised an atheist in a family of communists, Arkan made a point of showing public respects to the Serbian Orthodox Church, especially its head Patriarch Pavle. Additionally, he observed and celebrated various religious holidays, often publicly. Some questioned the motives behind these public displays of his newfound religious spirituality and saw it as shameless self-promotion ploy in an attempt at ingratiation with the Serbian public.
On November 3, 1993, Arkan and his followers founded the Party of Serbian Unity, and he became its president, but the party lost parliamentary elections and failed to win seats despite an energetic promotional campaign. In the 2000 election, however, the party received 200,000 votes and won 14 seats in the Serbian parliament.
Vojislav Seselj, a political rival of his, described the power Arkan wielded as early as 1987 during his testimony at the Milosevic trial.
Arkan became an untouchable criminal figure in Belgrade and all of the former Yugoslavia. He was really so powerful, so strong financially that no one could do anything about him....In 1993, I learned that Zeljko Raznjatovic, Arkan, had in Belgrade kidnapped and taken to Erdut and there killed Isa Lero...also a man from the criminal underground who had come into conflict with Arkan. I even found a witness to the murder. I publicly accused Arkan. I submitted a report to the police. The police inspectors came to see me. We talked about it. I gave them all the information I had, but then the police inspector told me that they were aware of it but that they were unable to prove it because of the fear among the potential witnesses. So the police were quite well-informed about his criminal activities, but it was very hard to prove anything or to bring charges because his support network was so widespread, and this can be shown through various newspaper articles and so on. In one television statement, I told him when we were debating on TV, that he had pulled a sock over his head more often than I had pulled one on my feet.
In the postwar period after the Dayton agreement was signed, Arkan returned to his interests in sport and private business. The Serb Volunteer Guard was officially disbanded in April 1996 with the threat to be reactivated in case of war emergency. In June of that year he took over a second division soccer team FK Obilić which he soon turned into a top caliber club, even winning the 1997/98 Yugoslav league championship. According to a book by Franklin Foer, "How Football Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization", Arkan threatened players on opposing teams if they scored against Obilić.
This threat was underlined by the thousands of veterans from his army that filled their home field, chanting threats, and on occasion pointing pistols at opposition players during matches. One player told the British football magazine FourFourTwo that he was locked in a garage when his team played Obilić. Europe's football governing body, UEFA, considered prohibiting Obilić from participation in continental competitions because of its connections to Arkan. In response to this, Arkan stepped away from the position of president and gave his seat to his wife Ceca. Arkan was also a chairman of the Yugoslav Kick-boxing Association.
Arkan has been accused of being involved in protection rackets, extortion, and the smuggling of oil and luxury items. Later he pursued more legitimate business and had about 400 people working for him. He owned casinos, discos, gas stations, pastry shops, stores, bakeries, restaurants, gyms, as well as a private security agency.
Arkan was unofficially allied with Slobodan Milošević, and operated under his control, although he was fairly independent in his day-to-day actions and decisions. Contacts between the men were usually carried out through a mediator Radovan "Badža" Stojičić, Serbia's police chief and Milošević's close associate, who was assassinated in April 1997.
In August 1998, when tensions over Kosovo had already begun, Arkan tried to get close to the West, writing a letter of support to U.S. president Bill Clinton over the bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In the letter he expressed condolences for the victims that died in the attack, and warned Clinton of the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. An excerpt from his letter reads: "Mr President… do not allow that terrorism continues in this part of Balkan in the Serbian state, which is forever a friend of your state." Clinton ignored him and never responded to the letter.
According to chief judge Richard May from the United Kingdom, the ICTY issued an indictment against Arkan on September 30, 1997 for war crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva convention of 1949 for customs and traditions of war. The warrant was kept sealed and was not made public until March 31, 1999, when the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia had already started a week earlier. Arkan's indictment was made public by Louise Arbour, then U.N. court's chief prosecutor, who moved to take a position as a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada only months later.
In the week before the start of NATO bombing — as the Rambouillet talks collapsed — Arkan appeared at the Hyatt hotel in Belgrade where most of Western journalists were staying and ordered all of them to leave Serbia.
During the period of the NATO aerial bombardment of Serbia, Arkan denied the war crime charges against him in interviews he gave to foreign reporters during Kosovo War. Arkan blamed NATO for bombing of civilians and creating refugees of all ethnicities, and stated that he would deploy his troops only in the case of a NATO direct ground invasion. After the US Air Force's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three journalists, and which led to a diplomatic row between the U.S. and People’s Republic of China, NATO and various Western media claimed the building might have been targeted because the office of the Chinese military attaché was being used by Arkan to communicate and transmit messages to his paramilitary group, the Tigers, in Kosovo.
Arkan was assassinated, on January 15, 2000, at 17:05 GMT in the lobby of Belgrade's elite InterContinental Hotel, a location where he was surrounded by other hotel guests. The killer, Dobrosav Gavrić, was a 23-year-old police mobile brigade's junior member. Gavrić had ties to the underworld and was on sick leave at the time. He walked up alone towards his target from behind. Arkan was seated and chatting with two of his friends and, according to BBC Radio, was filling out a betting slip. Gavrić waited for a few minutes, calmly walked up behind the party, and rapidly fired a succession of bullets from his CZ-99 duty-issued pistol. Arkan was shot in his left eye and lapsed into a coma on the spot. His bodyguard Zvonko Mateović put him into a car, and rushed him to a hospital, but he died on the way. According to an article on NPR, Milosevic's own men may have killed him for knowing too much.
Arkan's companions, Milenko Mandić, a business manager, and Dragan Garić, a police inspector, were also shot to death by Gavrić. Gavrić was shot and wounded immediately after by Arkan's bodyguard, Zvonko Mateović, and fell unconscious. A woman bystander was seriously wounded in a shootout between the two as well. After complicated surgery, Gavrić survived, but remained disabled and confined to a wheelchair as result of a spinal wound.
Željko Ražnatović Arkan was buried with military honors by his volunteers and with a Serbian Orthodox church mourning ceremonial on January 20, 2000. Around 20,000 people attended the funeral.
In reaction to the death, Serb sentiments varied across the political spectrum. For those who sympathised with his anti non-Serb rhetoric, he was a war hero, but for many who had seen and heard of his and the Tiger's actions, as well as his apparent political connections, feared him too much to make any public comment.
A new trial was conducted in 2006, ending on October 9, 2006 with guilty verdicts upheld for Gavrić as well as his accomplices Milan Đuričić and Dragan Nikolić. Each man received 30 years in prison. Only Nikolić is actually serving the sentence while Gavrić and Đuričić have been on the run for years.
Still, the murder's background and identities of the person(s) who ordered it remain unclear and subject of rife speculation. According to one rumour, Marko Milošević, the son of Yugoslavia's president at the time, Slobodan Milošević, was said to have had a harsh quarrel with Arkan over control of oil-smuggling rackets. NPR reported that he was more likely someone who simply knew too much when war crimes trials were becoming a reality for the Milosevic regime.
Another rumour alleges that Rade Marković ordered his outside operative Andrija Drašković to find the hitmen and coordinate the rest of the mission. This rumour goes on that Drašković then hired his fellow gangsters Dragan "Gagi" Nikolić and Zoran "Skole" Uskoković, while Dragan Nikolić further brought his friend Dobrosav Gavrić and relative Milan Đuričić as they supposedly were individuals in whom Gagi had full confidence (Đuričić was his first cousin while Gavrić was his best man). Together with Skole and his gang they secretly planned and organized Arkan's murder in his apartment.
Yet another rumour that floats around claims that Borislav Pelević, Arkan's close associate and his successor as president of Party of Serbian Unity, served as inside man for the plot against his boss. Security services also wiretapped Arkan shortly before his murder; for four months the group followed Arkan's movements and whereabouts, learning his habits.
On January 15, 2008, 8-year anniversary of Arkan's death, his sister Jasna Diklić accused Andrija Drašković of being behind her brother's murder. She further accused Serbian state institutions of "protecting Arkan's murderers Gavrić and Đuričić, and not doing anything to apprehend them".
Arkan's first wife was Natalija Martinović, a Spanish language professor, with whom he had four children: daughter Milena, twin sons Vojin and Nikola, and another daughter Maša. Their divorce became official in December 1994.
Since 1993 Arkan was already involved with the much younger Svetlana "Ceca" Veličković, a popular folk singer, 21 years his junior. Their lavish wedding ceremony on February 19, 1995 occurred as a day-long media production carried live on TV Pink with different locations and changes of clothing (at different points of the ceremony Arkan alternated between World War I Serb military uniform and traditional Montenegrin attire). The wedding ceremony was a gift to Arkan, paid by his long time friend and business associate, famous Italian lawyer Giovanni Di Stefano, nicknamed "The Devil's Advocate" by European media. Over the next 6 years they functioned as a glamorous power couple often appearing in public and media. They had two children: son Veljko and daughter Anastasija.
In June 1994, sometime after her separation from Arkan, Natalija Martinović and their four children left Serbia and moved to Athens, Greece where Arkan bought them an apartment in the posh neighbourhood of Glyfada. After Arkan's death Martinović disputed his will, claiming that Ceca, his second wife, doctored it. In May 2000, she sued Ceca over ownership of Arkan's assets including the villa at 3 Ljutice Bogdana Street in which he and Ceca lived (and Ceca continues to reside in to this day), claiming it was built with funds from a bank loan Martinović and Arkan took out in 1985. The court eventually ruled against Martinović. The court agreed with her assertions that the villa was built with money from a 1985 bank loan taken out by her and Arkan, but also found that she forfeited any rights in future division of that asset when she signed the property over to Arkan in 1994 before moving to Greece.