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Serb Volunteer Guard (Arkan's Tigers)

Insurgency Overview

The Serb Volunteer Guard (Srpska Dobrovoljačka Garda), better known as Arkan’s Tigers was a Serbian paramilitary unit active during much of the Yugoslav Wars. Founded in 1990, the Tigers fought both Croatian and Bosnian forces, notably making up the bulk of Serbian forces in the Croatian region of Eastern Slavonia. The Tigers gained notoriety for their ruthlessness towards both enemy combatants and civilians, as well as the flamboyance of their commander, Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović.

History & Foundations

Prior to forming the tigers, Željko Ražnatović was an international criminal, wanted for a series of armed robberies and shootouts throughout Western Europe throughout the late 1970s and early 80s. He returned to Yugoslavia in the early 80s and became the leader of the Delije, a group of far-right football hooligans who supported the team Red Star Belgrade. In May of 1990, he led the Delije in the Red Star-Dinamo Riot in Zagreb against Croatian hooligans (Stojanovic, 2013). By October of 1990, those same hooligans along with some friends he made in the Serbian underworld, joined Ražnatović in forming the Serbian Volunteer Guard, better known as Arkan’s Tigers.

In 1991, the Tigers participated in the invasion of Croatia, seizing a former Yugoslav military base in the village of Erdut, which would become a semi-permanent garrison for the group. It was in Erdut that they became a symbol of the Serbian war effort, their flamboyance was plain to see perfectly symbolized by their tiger cub mascots, an endearing quality to the propaganda machine in Serbia. Erdut became Arkan's new stomping grounds for criminal activity, using his authority to extort local businesses (Arkanova ostavština, 2010). While in Erdut the Tigers were also accused of committing numerous war crimes against Croatian civilians (Stoltenberg, 1996). Despite focusing mainly on the Croatian front of the war, the group also participated in the 1992 invasion of the Brčko District in Bosnia (Central Intelligence Agency, 1995) among other operations across into the Bosnian side of the border. The Tigers continued their efforts until the end of the Croatian War of Independence in 1995.

With the end of the war in Croatia, Arkan’s Tigers disbanded. In 1997 the International Criminal Tribunal indicted Arkan on war crimes charges (“ŽELJKO RAŽNATOVIĆ “ARKAN””, n.d.). A trial would not be held as on January 15th of 2000 he was assassinated in his hotel in Belgrade (Jones, Ahmetašević, and Pantović, n.d.).

Objectives & Ideology

The ideology of Arkan’s Tigers was thoroughly linked with far-right Serbian nationalism, with Arkan even founding the Party of Serbian Unity, a far-right political group that enjoyed little sucess (“Arkanova ostavština”). Arkan (and by extension his Tigers) thoroughly believed that the borders drawn for Serbia when they were a part of Yugoslavia were incorrectly drawn and that all ethnic Serbs should be citizens of a “Greater Serbia” under the newly formed Republic of Serbia. Arkan also combined the idea of a “Greater Serbia” with Orthodox Christian radicalism to declare a “religious war” against the Roman Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians (Laurie and Boskovic, 2015).

Military Capabilities

At its peak the Tigers numbered around 1,000 men, most were light infantry predominantly armed with Kalashnikov pattern rifles. The unit had a small armored force made up of a few armored personnel carriers, a truck mounted with an AA gun, and a T-55 tank which featured heavily in their propaganda photos (Laurie, 2015). The Tigers were partially funded and supplied by Arkan using his criminal connections but most of the material support the unit received came from the Serbian Interior Ministry. Their training and equipment left an impression, according to a declassified report from the Central Intelligence Agency, the unit was deemed to be “‘not the usual rag-tag bunch of men,’ but…looked more like professional Western troops” (Central Intelligence Agency, 1995).

Approach to Resistance

Arkan’s Tigers were heavily militant and ruthless in achieving their ideological goals. They were thoroughly integrated into the Serbian war effort and often fought alongside Serbian troops. From their very origins as a group of football hooligans, they were focused on achieving their goals violently. Perhaps the most striking example of their wanton violence was when the Tigers participated in the capture of Bijeljina, a Bosnian city close to the border with Serbia. Bosnian forces withdrew from the area following some skirmishes at the outbreak of the Bosnian War and left the city unguarded. The Tigers entered the city and began massacring civilians. There are conflicting reports of the total killed in the slaughter but the lowest estimates put it with at least 48 civilians killed (Jones, Ahmetašević, and Pantović, 2022). They were a militant group, no two ways about it.

International Relations & Alliances

The Tigers had numerous contacts in the Serbian underworld which helped Arkan finance the unit, particularly towards the beginning of the Yugoslav wars (“Arkanova ostavština” 2010). Most notably they were heavily backed by the Serbian Interior Ministry (MUP) and by extension the Serbian Republic. This support came in many forms, from being provided arms to having their vehicles registered with Ministry plates (Central Intelligence Agency 1995). The involvement of the Serbian state in the operations of the Tigers was so extensive that by at least 1994, the State Security Service handled the payrolls for the unit (Jones, Ahmetašević, and Pantović, 2022).

Arkan’s Tigers are today a controversial example of the pension for flamboyance and violence of the Serbian war effort throughout the Yugoslav Wars. The Tigers don’t only remain in their legacy, but also as old men. They are DJs, convicts, and members of Kremlin-affiliated biker gangs (Golubović, 2022). Many actively propagandize the Tigers online, trying to create a legendary zeal around the group.

Their victims also remain, they have waited for more than a quarter of a century for a justice they know may never come.

Works cited (Chicago)

“Arkanova ostavština - Deset godina od ubistva Željka Ražnatovića.” 2010. Nedeljnik Vreme.

Borger, Julian. 2000. “Brutal cog in Serb machine | World news.” The Guardian.

Central Intelligence Agency. 1995. “The Military Role of the Serbian Interior Ministry in the Yugoslav Conflict.” CIA.

Golubović, Srđan. 2022. “The DJ and the War Crimes — Rolling Stone.” The DJ and the War Crimes — Rolling Stone.

Jones, Sophia, Nidžara Ahmetašević, and Milivoje Pantović. 2022. “The DJ and the War Crimes — Rolling Stone.” The DJ and the War Crimes — Rolling Stone.

Laurie, Jim. 2015. “Bosnia - Arkan Militia Group.” YouTube.

Laurie, Jim, and Zoran Boskovic. 2015. “Serbia's Commander Arkan Dec. 23, 1991.” YouTube.

Pike, John, and Steven Aftergood. n.d. “Serb Volunteer Guard [SDG / SSJ] "Arkan's Tigers."” Intelligence Resource Program. Accessed August 15, 2023.

Stojanovic, Dusan. 2013. “[Eurasia] AP Report citing STRATFOR -Serbia grapples with surge in far-right violence.” WikiLeaks.

Stoltenberg, Thorvald. 1996. “Croatia: Impunity for abuses committed during “Operation Storm” and the denial of the rights of refugees to return to the Krajina.” Human Rights Watch.

“ŽELJKO RAŽNATOVIĆ “ARKAN.”” n.d. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Accessed August 15, 2023.

Additional Resources


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