Serbia has long known of close ties between its thriving extreme nationalist community and Russia. But it was only this month that President Aleksandr Vučić, sharply criticized the mercenary group, Wagner, effectively now an arm of the Russian state, for recruiting Serbs for the war in Ukraine, noting that this is “against our rules.”
Why now? That statement is almost certainly linked to a remonstrance from US State Department adviser, Derek Chollet, who earlier had expressed alarm that Prigozhin’s organization was trying to recruit fighters in Serbia and other countries. Chollet noted that this is unacceptable and that he had personally voiced these concerns during talks in Belgrade with the Serbian leader.
But while Vučić did as he was asked, the likelihood of firm action from the government is moot. A number of Serbian pro-Ukrainian activists, including representatives of the new anti-war wave of emigration from Russia, say that Serbian officials knowingly enable the notorious mercenary group’s operations in Serbia and have given direct orders that there should be no interference in such activities.
They point the finger at Aleksandr Vulin, director of the Serbian Government Agency for Security and Information, the country’s secret police. On January 19, a group of activists headed by the Serbian attorney Čedomir Stojković filed a lawsuit against Vulin, as well as the Russian ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, and Wagner. The suit accuses all the named individuals and organizations of assisting in the recruitment of Serbs for the war.
This is not some flight of fancy. Since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, there have been many known incidences of Serbs joining Russian forces. In the summer of 2015, residents of Horlivka, occupied by pro-Russian militants in Donbas, said that the occupying authorities had shipped in armed Serbs to eradicate dissent. In their words, “most Serbs didn’t even speak Russian and therefore were mostly occupied with arresting suspects, their imprisonment, as well as torture and executions.”
In 2016, Serbian activist Ventsislav Bujic, who had worked closely with Serbian radicals and their allies in Moscow, told the press how representatives of the pro-Kremlin organization Rus Molodaya had plans to destabilize Serbia if the country began to follow a pro-Western course. According to Bujic, the scheme relied on a network of sleeper agents throughout Serbia, who would seek to organize anti-Western uprisings when the moment came.
The former pro-Russian activist also showed a video in which the head of the radical Serbian Wolves organization, Aleksandr Sindjelić, admitted close ties with the Russian Ministry of Defense. In particular, Sinjelić says that it was he who helped the Russian military select Serbian Chetniks to participate in the occupation of Crimea. Shortly thereafter, it was alleged that pro-Russian Serbian radicals had joined a Russian attempt to overthrow attempt in Montenegro’s government.
The Serbian government responded with legislation making participation in armed conflicts on foreign territory an offense punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. But it appears that fear of jail does not phase Serbian radicals. In particular, the so-called Russian-Serbian Center for Friendship and Cooperation Orly (Eagles, or Orlovi in Serbian) continues to openly publish social media video interviews with what it terms Serbian volunteers fighting for Russia in Ukraine.
Toward the end of last year, it became known that Serbian ultra-nationalist Demyan Knezhević and one of the organizers of the Serbian opposition in Kosovo, Zoran Lekić, had visited Wagner’s newly built headquarters in St. Petersburg. According to media reports, their tour was organized by the Orly director, Aleksandr Lysov. Afterward, Knezhević said he saw the need to ensure “as much cooperation and assistance [as possible] from the Russian Federation and the Russian Army in the event of a conflict in Kosovo.”
Pro-Kremlin media have not denied that Serbian guests visited the Wagner center, but they insist that Prigozhin’s organization did not recruit Serbs, since “the escalation in Kosovo” meant Serbs wanted to remain close to home. Prigozhin himself, commenting on the accusations of Derek Chollet, in his characteristic manner, stated that the Wagner had no contacts with Serbia, but instead “would take part in an interethnic conflict on the territory of the United States.”
The Zlyi OroVi Telegram channel hosts propagandists regularly engaging in harassment and insults against Russian exiles, which became especially strong after the emigrants founded a group called the Russian Democratic Society in Serbia. Serbia’s prosecutor’s office was subsequently forced to initiate a criminal case because of death threats against anti-war activists Peter Nikitin and Stanislav Suslov.
Nevertheless, support for Russia among the Serbian populace is very high. According to the Montenegrin political analyst Ljubomir Filipović, Russian influence in Serbia is extensive, and it is likely to remain so even if the country is fully integrated into the EU.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that for the last eight years, pro-government Serbian media have spread Kremlin propaganda narratives regarding Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. It will not be easy to quickly alter the consequences.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.