By Michael Colborne
I work at the investigative journalism website Bellingcat, where I lead our project using open-source research methods to monitor the far right across central and eastern Europe. In the Balkans, we’re seeing how Serbia’s far-right fringes are bolstering Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine. These groups aren’t just helping fan the flames in support of Russia’s war; they’re also receiving Russian help to push their own dangerous agenda in an already fractious 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 against their government’s support for the suspension of Russia from the United Nations Human rights council because of its invasion of Ukraine. At the rally, marchers waved Russian and Serbian flags and chanted slogans such as: “Serbs and Russians – brothers for ever!”
The protest in the Serbian capital was organised by the far-right group People’s Patrol and its leader, Damnjan Knežević, who has also organised several other pro-Russian rallies. Just a few weeks later, Knežević and another People’s Patrol leader travelled from Serbia to Russia. They spent a week there, at the invitation of several Russian media organisations – including one headed by the notorious Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Many Serbs believe Russia has long acted as a protector of Serbia and its interests; the two countries share Slavic roots, and people in both Russia and Serbia feel they have been demonised by the west. Knežević has claimed that Russia, along with Serbia in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, has been unfairly framed as an aggressor when they are merely trying to protect their ethnic brethren. Knežević and his friends have flooded social media with pro-Russian exhortations. They have painted themselves as the most committed defenders of Serbs from all manner of perceived outside threats. This extends to defending those who, they feel, also defend the Serbian people; it’s why one regional analyst stated that Serbia’s far right provides “the most constant and intensive support” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This support involves more than just words or rallies. In May of this year, the small neo-fascist group Serbian Action posted a video to their YouTube channel documenting a visit they had made several months before to St Petersburg. Several Serbian Action members travelled 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, the RIM leader, Denis Gariev, fires off a handgun and brags that he teaches almost 1,000 Russians a year at the movement’s training centre.
The day after Serbian Action posted that video, Knežević appeared at a press conference in St Petersburg. He was accompanied by Aleksandr Lysov, the head of a “Serbian-Russian cultural information centre” 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 wasn’t so much what Knežević said at this press conference, but where it was taking place – the press centre of Patriot Media Group, a media conglomerate whose board of trustees is headed by Prigozhin. Patriot Media Group was one of the three media organisations People’s Patrol claimed invited them to Russia (the others included the infamous Russian state media outlet RT – for whom Knežević did a studio interview – and the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda).
Serbian Orthodox church protesters marching against EuroPride in Belgrade on Sunday.
‘It’s a win for us’: Serbia’s cancelled EuroPride exposes ongoing LGBTQ+ struggle
Prigozhin is a man we at Bellingcat unfortunately know all too well. He is an ex-convict and Putin confidant subject to US sanctions and wanted by the FBI for his alleged role in Russian interference in the 2016 elections. He has earned billions of dollars from Russian state contracts and allegedly controls Wagner, the private military company linked to numerous alleged war crimes in Africa and Ukraine.
It would be a mistake to ignore the relationships between the Serbian far right and Russia as meaningless or unworthy of further attention. Human rights organisations warned earlier this year that far-right extremism in Serbia is on the rise; EuroPride, the international LGBT event scheduled to run in Belgrade this month, faced a series of violent threats from the far right and the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, announced it would be cancelled. Neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, where nationalist tensions threaten to tear the country apart, has elections in October.
Montenegro, which separated from Serbia in 2006, could soon also have new elections. The country continues to be plagued by disputes over its national identity, between more independence-minded Montenegrins and self-identified Serbs who want closer relations with neighbouring Serbia. Tensions with Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is home to a small Serb minority, remain the biggest flash point in the region. The timing, unfortunately, is just right for Serbia’s far right to cause trouble if it wants to – and they have friends in Russia to give them a helping hand.
And Russia has already started to help. An English-language documentary recently broadcast on RT gave a platform to Knežević and other Serbian far-right figures to express their views unchallenged. “Just as Russia is freeing the Russian world via denazification and demilitarisation,” says Miša Vacić, a far-right figure long alleged to be linked to Vučić and his governing Serbian Progressive party, “we Serbs also have the right, through special operations, to create our own Serbian world.”
We ignore the far 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’ve now found more people around the world, including 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 $300m since 2014 to try to influence politicians and others around the world, including in the Balkans. Russia may not have started this fire, but it’s more than happy to help stoke it.
Michael Colborne is a journalist and researcher at investigative journalism website Bellingcat. He heads Bellingcat Monitoring, a project researching and analysing the far right in central and eastern Europe