The rally of right-wing groups from Serbia at the Jarinje border crossing with Kosovo, with the slogan Pray to God and stick to Russia, was their third protest in a week.
Before Jarinje, they protested twice in the centre of Belgrade. One of them was in front of the Presidency of Serbia, where the office of the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, is located.
These protests declared that Kosovo is part of Serbia and demanded an end to the dialogue with Kosovo on the normalisation of relations, which has been taking place since 2011 under the auspices of the European Union (EU).
The right-wing rallies come amid heightened tensions in the north of Kosovo, where groups of local Serbs have been blocking roads to border crossings with Serbia for ten days.
The barricades were set up after the Kosovo authorities arrested a former Kosovo police officer from the north.
Dusan Janjic of the Belgrade-based NGO Forum for Ethnic Relations told RFE that the government in Serbia cannot escape responsibility for the actions of right-wing groups.
“Vucic continues to tolerate and encourage the creation of anti-European, anti-democratic public opinion in order to have an alibi for why he is buying time and why he is not solving the Kosovo problem and why he is not imposing sanctions (on Russia),” Janjic said.
He added that in the end “this kind of alibi will be an obstacle” for Serbia and that the power of these right-wing groups should not be underestimated.
European and US mediators in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue are trying to speed up the process, which should result in a legally binding agreement between the two sides.
Serbia is also facing calls from EU officials to follow European foreign policy as a candidate country and to impose sanctions on Russia over its aggression against neighbouring Ukraine.
Who protested in Jarinje?
The group that gathered at the border crossing with Kosovo on 18 December showed signs of several far-right groups.
Among them was Damjan Knezevic, leader of the ultra-right “People’s Patrol”. This group also organised a protest in Belgrade on 12 December to “support the Serbs of Kosovo”.
This officially unregistered group became known to the wider public in early 2020, when its members posted a video of migrants being intercepted and threatened on the streets of Belgrade.
Since then, they have organised several anti-migrant actions in Serbia, mostly in cities where migrant and refugee centres are operating.
After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and faced international sanctions, the group organised several pro-Russia protests in Belgrade.
Damjan Knezevic has also visited Russia several times, most recently as a guest of the newly opened military-technological centre of the paramilitary group “Wagner” in St Petersburg.
Members of this private paramilitary group have been involved in hostilities on the Russian side in Ukraine and have also fought in Syria and some African countries. The founder of “Wagner”, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a close associate of the Kremlin.
Members of the far-right group “Srbska akcija” (Serbian Action) were also present at the 18 December protest in Jarinje. Several photos of the meeting were posted on the Telegram channel of this informal group, one of which shows a masked man carrying a Serbian Action flag.
In the same photo, another man can be seen wearing a black mask with the Celtic cross symbol on his face, which has been used for decades by neo-Nazi organisations. The man was also wearing a flag from the Imperial Russian period, which is emphasised by Russian ultra-right-wing activists, as well as by pro-Russian organisations outside Russia.
The photographs were accompanied by the announcement that “Serbian patriots” had gathered “in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who are standing on the barricades for the ninth day”, and that “Serbian Action” was also taking part in the event. .
On its website, “Serbian Action” states that it is committed to “Combative Serbian Orthodoxy”, as well as to preserving “national being and racial identity”.
Members of this unregistered group have taken part in a number of far-right protests and organised street commemorations for the collaborators of the World War II occupiers.
As RFE has previously reported, at the end of May, representatives of “Serbian Action” visited the militant ultra-right organisation “Imperial Legion” in St. Petersburg, which was designated a global terrorist threat by the State Department in 2020.
There were also signs of the lesser-known right-wing group Kormilo on Jarinje. As can be seen on the group’s social media, in recent years members of “Kormilo” have organised meetings with far-right organisations from Italy and France.
The videos from the meeting in Jarinje show members of the motorcycle group “MC Serbs”, who are also closely linked to the ultra-right. Members of this group wear the Nazi symbol of the Iron Cross and the coat of arms on their jackets from the time when Serbia was under Nazi occupation, and Sonja Biserko of the NGO Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia believes that the right-wing has been an instrument in the hands of the authorities for the last 10 years.
“They are in a way controlled by the government, they are not independent, but of course they can get out of control,” Biserko said.
The Presidency of Serbia could not immediately be reached for comment on the demands of the right-wing protests in recent days, nor on analysts’ assessments that the right-wing groups that emerged from these protests are under the control of the authorities.
What was the message of the protest in Belgrade?
“Kosovo will only betray cowards” – this was the slogan of a protest rally in front of the Serbian Presidency on 16 December.
Right-wing opposition parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties organised a counter-protest rally in front of the Presidency, demanding that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic “change the policy” of Serbia towards Kosovo and suspend the ongoing negotiations in Brussels.
This protest sent a demand to bring the negotiations back under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
A protest of “support for the Serbs” in Kosovo on 12 December in front of the Church of St Sava was invited from the social network Telegram to groups of right-wing organisations in Serbia.
The crowd sang derogatory songs about Albanians in Kosovo and chanted “Serbs and Russians brothers forever”, as well as “No division, Kosovo is part of Serbia”. And at this protest, as at some previous ones, signs of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine ‘Z’ appeared.
Sonja Biserko of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights says that “a certain tension is constantly maintained” to prevent a definitive solution for Kosovo.
“Which to some extent suits the representatives of our government, but also Russia, which does not want a solution to the Kosovo issue, wants the status quo,” Biserko said.
The crisis in northern Kosovo reached its peak on 10 December when groups of Serbs blocked roads and blocked traffic to the Jarinje and Brnjak border crossings with Serbia.
The barricades were set up after Kosovo police arrested former Serbian police officer Dejan Pantić on suspicion of involvement in an attack on representatives of the Central Election Commission.
The Kosovo authorities were trying to organise local elections in northern Kosovo in response to the decision of Serbian representatives there to leave Kosovo’s institutions.
At the suggestion of the EU and the US, the elections were postponed until next spring.
The attempt to organise elections was a response by the Kosovo government to the decision of the Serb representatives from the north to leave Kosovo’s institutions.
The abandonment of the institutions was due to the decision of the government in Pristina to re-register car plates issued by Serbia with vehicle registration plates of Kosovo./RSE/