Putin counts on his Balkan friends to support his bloody war in Ukraine | Michael Colborne
I I work at the investigative journalism website Bellingcat, where I lead our project using open source research methods to monitor the far right in Central and Eastern Europe. In the Balkans, we see how Serbia’s far-right fringes reinforce Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine. These groups are not just fanning the flames in support of Russia’s war; they are also receiving help from Russia to advance their own dangerous agenda in an already troubled part of Europe.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on, the Kremlin has some of the most disruptive and dangerous far-right forces in the Balkans on its side. In April 2022, thousands of Serbs took to the streets of Belgrade to protest their government’s support for Russia’s suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council due to its invasion of Ukraine. During the rally, marchers waved Russian and Serbian flags and chanted slogans such as: “Serbs and Russians – brothers forever!”
The protest in the Serbian capital was organized by the far-right People’s Patrol group and its leader, Damnjan Knežević, who also organized several other pro-Russian rallies. A few weeks later, Knežević and another People’s Patrol leader traveled from Serbia to Russia. They spent a week there, at the invitation of several Russian media outlets, including one run by notorious Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Many Serbs believe that Russia has long acted as a protector of Serbia and its interests; both countries share Slavic roots, and people in Russia and Serbia feel they have been demonized by the West. Knežević claimed that Russia, as well as Serbia in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, were unfairly portrayed as aggressors when they were simply trying to protect their ethnic brethren. Knežević and his friends flooded social media with pro-Russian exhortations. They presented themselves as the most committed defenders of the Serbs against all sorts of perceived external threats. This extends to defending those who they believe are also defending the Serbian people; that’s why a regional analyst said the Serbian far-right is providing “the most consistent and intensive support” for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This support involves more than words or gatherings. In May this year, the small neo-fascist group Serbian Action posted a video on their YouTube channel documenting a visit they had made several months earlier to St. Petersburg. Several members of the Serbian Action went there at the invitation of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), which has been officially designated a terrorist group in the United States and Canada. In the video, RIM leader Denis Gariev shoots a handgun and boasts of teaching nearly 1,000 Russians a year at the movement’s training center.
The day after this video was published by Serbian Action, Knežević appeared at a press conference in Saint Petersburg. He was accompanied by Aleksandr Lysov, the head of a “Serbo-Russian cultural information center” accused of threatening anti-Putin Russians living in Serbia, as well as an activist from the Young Guard, the youth wing of Putin’s political party, United Russia. .
What interested me was not so much what Knežević was saying at that press conference, but where it was happening – the press center of Patriot Media Group, a media conglomerate whose board of directors is headed by Prigozhin. Patriot Media Group was one of three media organizations that People’s Patrol claimed to have invited to Russia (the others included the infamous Russian state media RT – for which Knežević did a studio interview – and the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda).
Prigozhin is a man we unfortunately know too well at Bellingcat. He is a former Putin detainee and confidant under US sanctions and wanted by the FBI for his alleged role in Russian interference in the 2016 election. He has earned billions of dollars from Russian state contracts and controls allegedly Wagner, the private military company linked to numerous alleged war crimes in Africa and Ukraine.
It would be a mistake to dismiss relations between the Serbian far right and Russia as meaningless or unworthy of further attention. Human rights organizations warned earlier this year that far-right extremism in Serbia was on the rise; EuroPride, the international LGBT event scheduled for Belgrade this month, has faced a series of violent far-right threats and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has announced it will be cancelled. Neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, where nationalist tensions threaten to tear the country apart, is holding elections in October.
Montenegro, which split from Serbia in 2006, may soon have new elections as well. The country continues to be plagued by disputes over its national identity, between more pro-independence Montenegrins and self-identified Serbs who want closer relations with neighboring Serbia. Tensions with Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is home to a small Serb minority, remain the biggest flashpoint in the region. Unfortunately, now is the time for the Serbian far-right to cause trouble if they wish – and they have friends in Russia to lend a hand.
And Russia has already started to help. An English documentary recently aired on RT gave a platform for Knežević and other Serbian far-right figures to voice their opinions without challenge. “Just as Russia is liberating the Russian world through denazification and demilitarization,” says Miša Vacić, a far-right figure long believed to be linked to Vučić and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party, “we Serbs also have the right, through special operations, to create our own Serbian world.
We ignore the extreme right in the Balkans at our peril. Their ideologies are based on the same resentments and grievances that caused the Yugoslav disintegration wars of the 1990s, but they have now found more people around the world, including in Russia, willing to encourage and support them. It wouldn’t be the first time – the US State Department claimed in a recently declassified cable that Russia has spent $300 million since 2014 trying to influence politicians and others around the world, including in the Balkan. Russia may not have started this fire, but it is more than happy to help fan it.
Michael Colborne is a journalist and researcher at investigative journalism site Bellingcat. He directs Bellingcat Monitoring, a research and analysis project on the far right in Central and Eastern Europe.