Serbia has long been aware of the close ties between its burgeoning ultra-nationalist community and Russia. But only this month, President Alexander Vucic sharply criticized the Wagner mercenary groupwhich is now part of the Russian state, on the recruitment of Serbs for the war in Ukraine, noting that it is “against our rules,” Ksenia Kirilova, an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda and foreign affairs, writes for CEPA policy, author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor and others.
Why now? That statement was almost certainly related to an objection from US State Department adviser Derek Cholett, who had previously expressed concern that Prigogine’s organization was trying to recruit fighters in Serbia and other countries. Cholet noted that this was unacceptable and that he had personally expressed these concerns during talks in Belgrade with the Serbian leader.
But even though Vucic did what he was asked, the likelihood of decisive action by the government is debatable. A number of Serbian pro-Ukraine activists, including representatives of the new anti-war wave of emigration from Russia, say Serbian authorities are knowingly allowing the notorious mercenary group’s operations in Serbia and have given direct orders not to interfere with such activities.
They point the finger at Aleksandar Vulin, director of the Serbian government’s Security and Information Agency, the country’s secret police. On January 19, a group of activists led by Serbian lawyer Cedomir Stojkovic filed a lawsuit against Vulin, as well as the Russian ambassador to Serbia Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko and Wagner. The case accuses all named persons and organizations of helping to recruit Serbs for the war.
This is not some flight of fancy. Since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, there have been many high-profile cases of Serbs joining Russian forces. In the summer of 2015, residents of Khorlovka, occupied by pro-Russian fighters in the Donbass, said that the occupation authorities had sent armed Serbs to stamp out dissent. According to them, “most Serbs did not even speak Russian and therefore were mainly occupied with arresting suspects, imprisoning them, as well as with torture and executions.”
In 2016, Serbian activist Vencislav Bujic, who 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 relies on a network of sleeper agents throughout Serbia who will seek to organize anti-Western uprisings when the time is right.
The former pro-Russian activist also showed a video in which the head of the radical organization “Serbian Wolves” Aleksandar Sindjelic admits close ties to the Russian Ministry of Defense. In particular, Sinelić says that it was he who helped the Russian military select Serbs to take part in the occupation of Crimea. Shortly thereafter, pro-Russian Serbian radicals were alleged to have joined the Russian attempt to overthrow the Montenegrin government.
The Serbian government responded with legislation making participation in armed conflicts on foreign soil a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. But the fear of prison does not seem to stop Serbian radicals. In particular, the so-called Russian-Serbian Friendship and Cooperation Center Orli (Orli, or Orlovi in Serbian) continues to openly post video interviews on social media with what it calls Serbian volunteers fighting for Russia in Ukraine.
Towards the end of last year, it became known that the Serbian ultranationalist Demjan Knežević and one of the organizers of the Serbian opposition in Kosovo, Zoran Lekić, visited the newly built headquarters of Wagner in St. Petersburg. According to media reports, their tour was organized by the director of Orly, Alexander Lisov. Afterwards, Knežević 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 insist that Prigozhin’s organization did not recruit Serbs because the “escalation in Kosovo” meant Serbs wanted to stay close to home. Prigogine himself, commenting on Derek Cholett’s accusations, said in his characteristic way that the Wagners had no contacts with Serbia, but instead “will be involved in an inter-ethnic conflict on the territory of the United States”.
The Zlii Orovi Telegram channel hosts propagandists who regularly engage in harassment and insults against Russian exiles, which became particularly powerful after the émigrés founded a group called the Russian Democratic Society in Serbia. The Serbian prosecutor’s office was subsequently forced to open a criminal case because of death threats against anti-war activists Petar Nikitin and Stanislav Suslov.
Nevertheless, support for Russia among the Serbian population is very high. According to Montenegrin political analyst Ljubomir Filipovic, Russian influence in Serbia is extensive and will likely remain so even if the country is fully integrated into the EU.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that for the past eight years pro-government Serbian media have been spreading Kremlin propaganda narratives about Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. It will not be easy to heal the consequences.
Wagner’s network in the Balkans
In view of the recruitment efforts in the countries of the region