Mysterious Plane Crash: Were Serbian Weapons Heading To Ukraine? | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW
Serbian mortars and mines, sold by a mysterious arms trafficker and supposedly bound for Bangladesh, then transported by a Ukrainian plane that crashed in Greece, sounds like the plot of a political thriller. But that’s the reality.
In the late evening of July 16, 2022, a Ukrainian Antonov An-12 transport plane crashed near the city of Kavala in northeastern Greece, killing all eight Ukrainian crew members. The plane had taken off from the town of Nis in southern Serbia and was carrying 11.5 tonnes of Serbian-made mortar shells and mines.
The person behind the arms production is believed to be Slobodan Tesic, allegedly one of the biggest arms dealers in the Balkans and a longtime presence on US sanctions lists. The official country of destination for the ammunition was Bangladesh.
The pilot reported engine problems shortly after takeoff, while flying over the North Aegean Sea. An emergency landing was no longer possible. The accident near Kavala was devastating and the munitions continued to explode the following day.
None of the crew survived the plane crash and the munitions exploded for hours
The largest arms producer in the region
The accident deteriorated diplomatic relations between Greece and Serbia on the one hand, and Greece and Ukraine on the other. The Greek government was apparently unaware of the sensitive cargo and protested in both countries.
The disaster has also drawn attention to the Serbian weapons and arms industry, which regularly makes headlines for corruption and illegal exports.
Serbia is one of the largest and most important arms producers in Central Europe, a tradition that dates back to the era of Yugoslavia. Almost entirely state-owned, the industry is an important part of the country’s economy. As far as what’s on offer, Serbia has almost everything, from handguns and mines to artillery and tanks, and even missile systems, drones, fighter jets and electronic equipment like speed cameras.
The Serbian Ministry of Defense estimated the total value of Serbian arms exports in 2020 at some $600 million (530 million euros), a figure which represents around 3% of Serbia’s total exports for the year . However, reliable figures are not available.
A Serbian-made tank
Arms deliveries to war and conflict zones
The main buyers of Serbian arms and military equipment are the United Arab Emirates, Cyprus, the United States, Bulgaria and Saudi Arabia. The industry’s customers are spread all over the world and the branch would not be picky about who it sells to, said political scientist Vuk Vuksanovic, of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.
“The Serbian state really wants to get the most dinars out of this industry,” he told DW. “The red line, however, is that export destination countries should not be under UN sanctions and should not experience armed conflict.”
However, Vuksanovic said, Serbia “does not always follow these rules”.
In fact, over the past two decades, the Western Balkan nation has repeatedly exported weapons to war and conflict zones and delivered them to countries under arms embargo.
In the fall of 2019, it was revealed that Serbian weapons had fallen into the hands of Islamist militants in Yemen via Saudi Arabia. In the summer of 2020, the Azerbaijani army discovered Serbian weapons that had been sold to Armenia and had landed in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. And in February this year, a network of Serbian investigative journalists discovered that Serbian weapons had been delivered to Myanmar even after the February 2021 military coup.
Serbian President Aleksander Vucic reviews weapons made in Serbia
Penalties for arms dealers
The man whose name comes up repeatedly in the context of illegal Serbian arms trafficking is Slobodan Tesic. The 64-year-old has worked in the Balkan arms business for decades. From 2003 to 2013, he was on a US sanctions list for illegally delivering weapons to Liberia. In December 2017, sanctions were again imposed on him for numerous illegal arms trafficking. They remain in place today and include, among other things, a travel ban and the seizure of his US-based assets. US officials name it the biggest arms and ammunition dealer in the Balkans.
Tesic is also at the center of multiple corruption cases within the Serbian arms industry, including the so-called Krusik export scandal, which came to light in the fall of 2019. Companies owned in Tesic allegedly bought products from the state arms manufacturer Krusik well below market. price, then sold them at a much higher price abroad – even though the state-owned company Yugoimport SDPR is responsible for handling Serbia’s international arms deals.
Money for the president?
Money transfers to President Aleksander Vucic’s ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), have also reportedly been part of business deals between state-owned arms companies and private companies. Tesic is one of the largest SNS donors. According to Serbian media, he also has a diplomatic passport.
The father of the current Serbian defense minister, now deceased, was allegedly involved in similar arms deals for years, which Vucic and the minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, have always denied.
Serbia’s current Defense Minister Stefanovic (centre) has denied that his father had any ties to the arms industry
Not surprisingly, Tesic’s name surfaced in connection with the planned arms delivery to Bangladesh and the plane crash. He would be behind Valir DOO, the company that was officially responsible for the deal. Tesic has made no public remarks about the events or the allegations against him.
The balance of Belgrade
There is also speculation as to whether the weapons were not intended for Bangladesh at all but for Ukraine. Defense Minister Stefanovic and the director of the Ukrainian company Meridian, which owned the downed plane, denied this.
But Vuksanovic thinks important questions remain. “The public should know why a Ukrainian plane was carrying Serbian weapons at this time, when a major international conflict is raging on Ukrainian territory,” he said.
The political scientist sees in the affair the expression of Belgrade’s “rocking” policy, trying to balance the various major international powers.
“That would mean, on the one hand, covert ammunition for Ukraine to please the West,” he said. “On the other hand, concessions are being made to Russia by Serbia. This is all part of the behavior of Belgrade elites, their swinging between different international powers in order to buy services in return. For Serbia, the question Now is whether those policies will collapse at some point because one of those powers is angry.”
This article was originally published in German.