In light of rallies supporting Russia in its Ukraine invasion, Serbian politicians’ statements on the war, and the government’s refusal to support Western sanctions, analysts have warned of the threat Russia’s far-right allies in Serbia pose.
Serbia is the largest economy in the Western Balkans and has been an official EU candidate since 2012. Amid new local tensions, Belgrad has enhanced efforts with the European Union and the United States to restart negotiations to settle relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
However, Moscow keeps efforts to ensure Serbia’s loyalty in the foreign relations. Russian officials have traveled to Serbian military bases to demonstrate the Kremlin’s commitment to exerting influence in the region. Russia also welcomed on its soil Serbian radical figures.
In his article for the Guardian, Michael Colborne turned his attention to the Serbian far-right groups supporting Russia’s bloody war against Ukraine. These groups are not just trying to whitewash Putin’s war but are getting help from Russia to promote their dangerous ideas in Europe. In this article, we review the events and the threat they pose.
Serbian militants visit the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg
Serbian ultranationalist Damjan Knezevic was given a private tour of an infamous Russian paramilitary group Wagner’s new high-rise headquarters in St. Petersburg, the hometown of President Vladimir Putin.
In a video shared on November 27, Knezevic and a member of his People’s Patrol organization explored the Wagner Center’s dark interior with other guests.
“Many of my friends will be proud that I had the honor to visit the PMC Wagner Center. It and the organization itself are trendy in Serbia. One of the purposes of my visit was to bring the flag with which we walked through the streets of Belgrade. We took it through the streets of St. Petersburg,” said Damjan Knezevic.
Knezevic may be exaggerating the level of acquaintance Serbs have with Wagner, a prominent weapon in the Kremlin’s projection of influence overseas, directed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s close ally, dubbed by some as “Putin’s chef.”
Pro-Russian rallies in Belgrad
The far-right group People’s Patrol and its leader, Damnjan Knežević, organized several other pro-Russian rallies in Belgrad. Knežević and another leader of the People’s Patrol spent a week in Russia at the invitation of several Russian media outlets, one of which is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Many Serbs are convinced that Russia has been a protector of Serbia and its interests, both countries have Slavic roots, and both people believe that the West demonizes them.
Knežević and his friends have flooded social media with pro-Russian rhetoric. They present themselves as dedicated defenders of the Serbs against any external threat. This protection extends to those who, in their view, also protect Serbs.
Knezevic and Lysov connection
Knežević appeared at a press conference in St. Petersburg with Alexander Lysov, head of the Serbian-Russian Cultural Center, accused of threatening Russians living in Serbia who spoke out against Putin. The press conference took place in the press center of the Patriot Media Group, whose supervisory board is headed by Prigozhin.
Links with Wagner and Prigozhin
Prigozhin is subject to U.S. sanctions, and the FBI is looking for him for his role in Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. He has made billions from Russian government contracts and controls the private military organization Wagner, which is linked to numerous war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.
Rights organizations have charged the Wagner mercenaries that Prigozhin hired with war crimes committed while fighting alongside regular Russian forces in Syria, the Central African Republic, and Libya.
Wagner is expected to be recognized as a terrorist group by the E.U. and the U.S.
However, they have also contributed significantly to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, with convicts being hired by Wagner in Russian prisons and sent to the frontlines in Ukraine.
Credible reporting has revealed Prigozhin and other Vagner representatives touring Russian prisons to recruit soldiers to fight in Ukraine in exchange for amnesty and high salaries. There is also evidence that Wagner troops were taken prisoners of war by the Ukrainian military in the fighting in Ukraine.
Z-Orlovi radical group and Telegram channel
In August, Serbia’s Hi-Tech Crime Prosecutor’s Office opened a case related to messages on the Telegram channel Z-Orlovi. Its authors supported the Russian war against Ukraine and threatened anti-war activists from Russia.
Serbian prosecutors investigate threats made by the Russian far-right group Z-Orlovi against anti-war demonstrators in the group. The radicals threatened a small group of members of the Russian diaspora in Serbia who oppose Russian President Putin’s policies and activists who have organized actions supporting Ukraine.
Lysov’s dangerous activity in Serbia
Aleksandar Lysov is the chairman of the Russian-Serbian Center Orlovi and is responsible for the pro-war Telegram group known as Z-Orlovi. Apparently, a reference to the “Z” distinguishes Russian armored vehicles in the invasion. As we mentioned, Lysov joined Knezevic on the Wagner tour.
Alexander Lysov is affiliated with far-right parties in Serbia. Together they spread pro-Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine on social networks.
The telegram channel “Zlye Orlovi” was created in March 2022, and for the first few months, it published posts about “Serbian support” for the Russian army in Ukraine and called for the harassment of those who opposed the war.
Lysov’s connection to the French far-right group “Generation identitaire,” which French authorities declared illegal in 2021, and to the Serbian Image organization. In 2005, the Serbian Interior Ministry and the Vojvodina Assembly’s Security Committee called the organization a “klerofascist organization.
Serbian mercenaries in Wagner
Knezevic’s tour to Wagner center represents a severe threat. There were cases of Serbian radicals going to join the war in Donbas on Russia’s side. Some of them fought in the ranks of Wagner, which can be recognized as a terrorist group internationally.
In a test case of how Serbian justice would implement laws prohibiting participation in foreign wars, a high court in Belgrade sentenced a Serbian national to a year of probation in 2017 for fighting in a Wagner unit.
In a few other cases, Serbs fighting in eastern Ukraine alongside Russians or separatists sponsored by Russia received only light punishments. Of the 32 criminals who have been found guilty thus far in Serbian courts, 28 have received suspended sentences, while four more have been placed under home arrest for six months.
The prospect of jail time ranging from six months to five years, with eight-year sentences conceivable if such actions are carried out as part of an organized gang, has been part of Serbia’s Criminal Code since 2014. Managing such involvement is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
It’s worth mentioning that in this period, Aleksandr Vulin served as Serbia’s interior minister until his recent appointment as the head of the Serbian Intelligence Agency. He is one of the few European officials who have traveled to Moscow since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. He referred to the sanctions at the time as “part of the anti-Russian hysteria.”
The threat to the relationship between Russia and Serbian far-right
It would be a mistake to ignore the danger of relations between the Serbian far-right and Russia. Human rights organizations have warned that right-wing extremism is just rising in Serbia.
Tensions in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is home to a small community of Serbs, pose the greatest threat to the region. In such circumstances, right-wing Serb groups can cause trouble if they want to, and Russian allies will be ready to help them.
The ideology of the Serbian far-right is based on the same contempt and resentment that led to the Yugoslavia split and related wars in the 1990s. But now they have found partners, particularly in Russia, willing to support them in their destructive activities.
The EU should be cautious, as the far-right radical groups can set the fire, and Moscow may add oil to it to create chaos in the region and harm the West.