Levijatan: Serbian Animal Rights Vigilantes Go To The Polls
In a scene from Srećni Ljudi (Happy People), a Serbian television show from the early 1990s, two young brothers harass a younger boy sitting on a bench, a dog underneath his feet.
“Is that the little mongrel you got for your birthday?” One brother, played by Pavle Bihali, says to him, using a derogatory word in Serbian for a dog. The two brothers are bullies who constantly pester the younger boy, with Bihali’s character rifling through his backpack in an earlier episode.
“Simo,” the boy whispers to the dog, “When I say ‘one, two, three,” you chase them off.” The dog promptly chases the bullies off around the corner.
Almost thirty years later, life imitates art for Pavle Bihali. Decades after playing a bully as a child actor — an experience that, as he told Serbian media in 2017, he didn’t enjoy — Bihali, now 38, heads up a Serbian far-right group long accused by human rights activists and others of being a gang of bullies hiding behind a facade of protecting animal rights.
Levijatan (“Leviathan”) has a menacing slogan of “Don’t touch animals, we’ll find you” and a logo featuring brass knuckles and a stylized claw. The group was founded in 2015. They call themselves one of the leading organizations in Europe for “protecting and preventing abuse of street dogs and cats.” Levijatan has marketed itself as a group taking a tough-guy, no-nonsense approach to the issue of animal abuse.
Serbia, alongside other countries in southeastern Europe, has a longstanding problem of stray animals on city streets, many of which become victims of abuse; alongside this issue, activists have claimed that Serbia’s government fails to enforce animal abuse laws already on the books. It’s an emotionally charged issue for Serbians, and Levijatan has managed to co-opt it.
Levijatan’s activities are not limited to the dog-cuddling photos they post on social media. They use their public platform to insult, bully and threaten their critics — not just because they might abuse or harm animals. Levijatan use any chance they get to inject nationalist rhetoric into their messages, including attacking anyone they consider to be “anti-Serbian.”
For Levijatan, “anti-Serbian” includes everyone from human rights activists and independent media to Romani people and migrants. The group’s leader, directly inspired by U.S. President Donald Trump, has even started labeling his left-wing critics “terrorists.” Though they deny it, Levijatan has also been accused of having links not only to organized crime, but to the ruling party of increasingly autocratic Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic. Levijatan is even running candidates in Serbia’s elections on June 21. (Levijatan did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Bellingcat)
While Levijatan has received its fair share of media coverage in Serbia and across the region, they have almost never been discussed in foreign language media outlets. That, in a way, is unfortunate: Levijatan is an ideal case study of how a far-right group, even one with a transparent history of vigilantism, can exploit an overwhelmingly popular cause — such as stopping animal abuse — to push themselves away from the fringes and further into the mainstream.
Rescues, Taunts, And Threats
Under Bihali’s command since 2015, Levijatan have become the preeminent defenders of animal rights in Serbia. Members of the group have personally rescued a number of neglected and abused animals, all featured over the past several years in photos and videos on the group’s social media pages. This work has made Levijatan extremely popular in Serbia and neighbouring countries; their Facebook page alone has almost 260,000 followers, with some videos having millions of views.
Levijatan’s methods have long been the target of criticism. When Levijatan learns about alleged cases of animal abuse, they generally do not go to authorities with that information. As one Serbian tabloid newspaper described 2018, Levijatan’s response to cases of apparent animal abuse is to post information about the reported abusers — often accompanied by profanity, insults and outright threats — and offer a public reward for more information.
They have confronted owners, taken animals from their owners without legal authority to do so, and, in their own words, taught alleged abusers a lesson by forcing them to make apology videos on social media. Levijatan leader Bihali and his former second-in-command, Aleksandar Buhanac, were even arrested in November 2018 for threatening the owner of a dog shelter online.
The group’s activities are covered positively in some of Serbia’s notorious right-wing, pro-government tabloid newspapers, including Informer, one of Serbia’s highest-circulation dailies, whose editor was found guilty of hate speech in 2018. When negative articles about Levijatan appear in other news outlets, the group’s leader is known to take to Facebook to call them “lies.”
Sometimes, Levijatan’s claims border on surreal. In a Facebook post in September 2017, Levijatan claimed that “dog brothels” existed in Serbia. Posting a photo of a dog wearing tights, Levijatan wrote that they “received information that such dog brothels are also located in Belgrade. This kind of decadence in society and trends from the West must be stopped.”
As a BuzzFeed News story later pointed out, photos like what Levijatan posted were from a meme that involved pet owners putting tights on their dogs and cats.
Yet Levijatan’s bizarre claims were convincing enough to be picked up by British tabloid The Mirror, in which Bihali claimed that Levijatan had information about “a club…where all this happens.” Bihali repeated these claims in a 2018 Vice Serbia documentary.
No evidence has ever emerged of the existence of dog brothels in Serbia, let alone evidence that Belgrade is a “hotspot for ‘zoophiles’ who enjoy sex with animals” as per The Mirror story based on Levijatan’s post.
This is not the only false claim Levijatan has made. In an October 2019 Facebook video, Bihali accused an actor and activist critical of Vucic’s government, Branislav Trifunovic, of tearing up a Serbian flag on stage. Levijatan’s leader demanded Trifunovic be prosecuted and the actor found himself in the crosshairs of nationalist tabloid and social media rage.
As Trifunovic explained, none of what Bihali said was true.
In the play that Trifunovic starred in, his character dies and the character’s daughter, far from desecrating the flag, wraps herself in it. Bihali had taken a statement Trifunovic made in an earlier interview out of context — the actor had accused others of abusing the Serbian flag.
“I’m Of Jewish Descent, How Can I Be A Fascist”
When Levijatan started making a name for themselves, critics were quick to note the group’s origins, particularly those of leader Pavle Bihali. The Vice Serbia documentary broadcast in November 2018 referred to Bihali as “a man well known in the Belgrade underworld.”
“Levijatan is an informal gang of criminals and thugs from the fascist milieu who use the alleged fight for animal welfare as cover for fascist and criminal acts,” Serbian anti-fascist activists claimed in a September 2018 Facebook post protesting their appearance at a media conference. “They have been involved in many violent actions against Roma, LGBT and other “enemies of Serbs.””
Photos published on a Croatian news site soon after show screenshots of past social media posts of Pavle Bihali. They show the Levijatan leader wearing a shirt in support of organized crime figure Luka Bojovic, currently serving an 18-year prison sentence in Spain. Bihali stated on social media that Bojovic was part of his life growing up. Bihali was also pictured posing with members of neo-Nazi biker gang MC Srbi. Another photo shows a Totenkopf, a neo-Nazi symbol, tattooed on Bihali’s arm.
Bihali was dismissive at the time of publication, stating he has never been convicted of any crime and claiming that he had once been far-right but had “changed [his] political direction.”
“I certainly won’t remove my tattoos because of a group of five or six people, some communist scum,” Bihali said in October 2018, referencing the activists who protested Levijatan’s conference appearance. “First of all, I’m of Jewish descent, how can I be a fascist.”
Bihali’s namesake ancestor was a Serbian Jewish communist and intellectual who was murdered by the Nazis in July 1941. Bihali has insisted, with no evidence to back up this claim, that his ancestor was, in fact, murdered by communists, “because he brought western culture and literature to Serbia.”
Almost two years later, however, Bihali still identifies his political beliefs on his Facebook profile as “Very Conservative – White Pride Worldwide” — with the latter being an infamous neo-Nazi slogan.
Bihali has thus constructed a convenient niche for himself in the public sphere in Serbia. He presents himself as someone who does not fully embrace the far right — even denying that he should be considered ‘far right’ — but at the same time does not fully deny far-right ideology, uses their language and tropes in his communications, politically identifies as a white pride supporter, and is friendly with known neo-Nazis. A contradictory public persona, bridging both the extremes and the mainstream, appears to have been key to Levijatan’s success.
Stirring Up Anti-Roma Hatred
It is estimated that, of Serbia’s population of 7 million, up to 500,000 are Romani people. Levijatan regularly employs anti-Roma rhetoric and uses its social media accounts to deliver anti-Roma tirades under the guise that they abuse animals.
“Is this why you’re blocking us? What word can we use without getting our accounts blocked? This is ABUSE. 269. A picture speaks more than any million words we could utter,” the June 2018 post reads, referencing the article of Serbia’s Criminal Code outlawing animal abuse.
As a number of obscene, violent anti-Roma comments below the above post make clear, many of Levijatan’s followers knew exactly what “word” was being referred to.
“Fucking gypsies should be locked up in a ghetto and not given food or water and forced to work under a whip,” says one. Others suggest that the Nazi genocide of Romani people (Porajmos) should be repeated; “Hitler should come back and turn on the gas.”
Additionally, while Levijatan does not explicitly claim in the post that the photo was taken in Serbia, commenters interpret it as speaking to alleged widespread abuse of animals across the country by Roma.
The photo does not appear to be from Serbia. A simple Google Image Search of the photo shows the number of times it has appeared on other websites. The photo was used in a September 2015 blog post in Brazil, and even earlier in two June 2015 Spanish-language tweets. If the photo was indeed taken in Serbia, it is odd that it only shows up on websites from another continent and in other languages.
Levijatan’s anti-Roma rhetoric has given way to action. In September 2019, Levijatan posted a video on their Facebook page showing a horse being abused outside a Roma settlement in Nis, a city in southern Serbia.
The next day, members of Levijatan and other far-right groups filmed themselves entering the settlement and, without any apparent legal authority, taking away the horse they alleged to have been assaulted.
After an outcry from human rights activists that the men had acted as vigilantes, Levijatan and other far-right leaders who took the horse claimed they had been invited into the community. The video itself makes clear that Levijatan and friends entered the settlement, located the teenager who allegedly abused the horse, and sat him down.
“Now the horse will be taken away and the whole settlement will follow your example that no one can mistreat an animal anymore,” the leader of Srpska Čast (Serbian Honour) and Levijatan ally Bojan Stojkovic told the teen. “This is your last warning about doing this kind of shit.”
In the wake of the controversy, Levijatan subsequently posted a video with two local Roma activists, saying that their approval justified the group’s actions and calling it “another victory over lies.” While the two men are indeed local Roma activists and politicians, they also both happen to be members of the governing SNS party, the same party to which Levijatan is alleged to be linked.
In April 2020, Levijatan members similarly made local headlines when they stole a dog from a Roma family in central Belgrade, claiming it had been abused.
In a video Levijatan posted on its Facebook, group members are shown driving up in Levijatan-branded vans to a small camp in Belgrade, where the members get out and enter a Roma family’s home, demanding the family give them the dog.
The father of the Roma family claimed that Levijatan tried to kidnap one of his teenage sons as well. The video posted by Levijatan did not include evidence of a kidnapping attempt.
Activists and representatives for the family subsequently stated that the dog in question was owned legally by the family and, moreover, that they never abused any animals. Levijatan members are now being investigated by Belgrade prosecutors and face accusations of stealing other dogs around Belgrade, though the group’s leader has denied this.
“Anti-Migrant Policies, That’s Our Answer!”
Over the last few months, Serbia’s far right has increasingly insisted that there is massive, unreported “migrant crime” across the country. There are currently nearly 8,000 migrants in camps across Serbia, with an estimated 1,000 leaving Serbia after the country’s COVID-19 state of emergency was lifted in early May.
Human rights activists and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have noted and warned about a number of baseless allegations of crimes committed by mostly Muslim migrants have been proliferating in tabloids and on Serbian social media. This is backed up by Serbia’s Refugee Commissariat, who has stated that migrants commit a miniscule percentage of crimes — less than 0.1%— and noted, during the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015, when an estimated one million migrants came through Serbia, not a single serious incident was reported.
Levijatan, however, are convinced that there is rampant crime and violence against Serbs perpetrated by migrants.
In response to a social media post claimed to have witnessed a group of migrants raping a woman, Pavle Bihali tweeted in June 2018 that “[of] course it’s covered up. Migrants think that this is their pasture and they can behave however they want. The rape of our underage daughters, sisters, if it isn’t stopped in a legal way, will erupt into something else. I personally can’t watch anymore, zero tolerance.”
Last month, Levijatan member Filip Radovanovic was arrested for speeding his car through a migrant housing camp, and almost running over Serbian soldiers on duty while livestreaming the spectacle on Facebook.
Yelling in what one Serbian tabloid described as a “hysterical” voice, Radovanovic almost runs over Serbian soldiers guarding the camp as they dart out of the way.
“I don’t want my girlfriend to be attacked by migrants,” Radovanovic shouts. “I don’t want a Muslim state. I don’t want to put up with this! Your punishment will be great for sure.”
Levijatan’s leader defended and justified Radovanovic’s actions.
“Filip is a member of the [Levijatan] movement,” Bihali tweeted. “Filip could no longer take the mistreatment by migrants and decided to do this. Although he didn’t do it carrying the colours of the movement and did it on his own, I won’t distance myself, my guys are like that, hot-blooded and doing the right thing.”
Radovanovic was arrested and released, but was soon after detained again, this time for 30 days. Outside the same migrant camp he sped through, Bihali and other Levijatan members protested Radovanovic’s detention.
It was reported in June 2020 that Radovanovic had since pleaded guilty and will serve an 8-month prison sentence for his actions, though his recent social media posts suggest he has yet to begin that sentence.
Levijatan Goes To The Polls
Serbia’s parliamentary and local elections are taking place June 21, and there is no doubt who is going to win. Polls show president Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) polling at 58 per cent.
Vucic’s SNS was formed out of a splinter group from the far-right Serbian Radical Party in 2008. Despite the word “progressive” (“napredna”) in the name, the party led by Vucic since 2012 is firmly right-wing.
Levijatan, on the other hand, have thrown their own hats into the electoral ring. The group announced in February 2020 that it planned to run candidates in up to 20 municipalities, despite the leader’s pledge only months before that his movement would never take part in politics.
“The Levijatan movement will NEVER get involved in politics as long as I live,” Pavle Bihali tweeted in September 2019.
Notably, after Levijatan’s February announcement that they would participate in the elections, the group’s second-in-command Aleksandar Buhanac disappeared from Levijatan’s social media feeds and no longer appears in videos alongside Bihali.
Levijatan and their allies from Živim za Srbiju! (“I live for Serbia!”), a group led by anti-vaccination doctor Jovana Stojkovic, are running 26 candidates in Serbia’s elections on June 21. They need to garner at least 3% of the vote to get into the country’s parliament.
“Behind Levijatan Is The Government”
Levijatan has long been accused of having connections to Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic’s ruling party, SNS, and accused of benefiting from their protection.
Because of lack of official reaction to their actions, a Serbian journalist wrote in April that, “One gets the impression that organizations like Levijatan…are under the direct control of the state, which uses them to intimidate minority groups and political opponents.”
Filip Radovanovic, the 23-year-old who drove his car through a migrant camp, is an SNS member in addition to being part of Levijatan. As noted earlier, Levijatan’s defense of its anti-Roma actions in September 2019 featured two Roma activists and politicians who both happen to be linked to SNS. Other observers point to the fact that the targets of Levijatan’s ire usually only involve figures and parties that criticize or oppose the government, including the anti-Vucic far-right party Dveri.
In June 2019, a Serbian journalist posted on Facebook that a Levijatan logo was now emblazoned on the office door formerly occupied by a pro-Vucic far-right party as well as SNS itself.
“Half the premises…” the journalist wrote, “were used by the SNS until a few months ago before Srpska Desnica (“Serbian Right”) moved in…they’ve now taken in this [Levijatan] movement, while the Serbian Right still occupies the other half.” Srpska Desnica (“Serbian Right”) is a far-right party long accused of having direct connections to Vucic’s SNS.Levijatan has long strongly denied any connections to the ruling party. “Jovana [Stojkovic] and I don’t work for Vucic and aren’t financed by Vucic,” Bihali wrote on Twitter in May 2020.
Whether these vigilantes are able to get elected to public office or not, it appears that far-right political violence is growing more normalized and accepted in Serbia. Examples include LGBT individuals continuing “to face hate speech, threats, and even physical violence, and perpetrators…rarely punished despite laws addressing hate crimes and discrimination”, unpunished vandalism at NGO premises, human rights activists assaulted and ejected from a February 2020 book signing hosted by a genocide denier and war criminal and, of course, the many actions of Levijatan discussed here. Ultimately, it seems like Levijatan and friends do not act like they are expecting to face serious consequences for their actions anytime soon.